The Allen Marine catamaran St. Tatiana heads along the outer coast south of Sitka near the end of this year’s tour season. It’s on one of the company’s Sea Otter Quests, and it’s having some success.
Several dozen cruise-ship tourists watch from an open deck as otters swim, dive, roll and float on their backs.
“You saw a few of them have their hind feet out of the water. That’s because there’s not so much fur around there so they don’t want to lose that heat through their body to the water because they don’t have a lot of fur around their feet,” says Naturalist Ryan Dunn.
He goes on to explain that otters have incredibly thick fur instead of blubber. Their pelts are valuable, and they were hunted to near-extinction by the early 1900s.
Otters were reintroduced to Southeast in the 1960s, and for decades, they were a rare sight. But recently, their population has boomed, mostly along the outer coast and in southern Southeast.
That means the voracious eaters are consuming more and more sea cucumbers, sea urchins and the giant clam called geoducks.
A new report says Southeast Alaska’s sea otter boom has cost the region’s commercial divers and fishermen close to $30 million. Most is income lost as otters consume shellfish and crabs that otherwise would be harvested.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the dive fisheries in the long run. It doesn’t look very promising, though,” says Phil Doherty, executive director of the Ketchikan-based Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association.
The association recently released an economic report from the McDowell Group, a Juneau-based research firm.
The report estimates regional otter numbers will soon hit 20,000, more than double the population about eight years ago. And by 2015, it will more than triple.
“We don’t see a real management plan out there that would even slow down the growth, let alone trying to keep otters out of areas where they aren’t in yet,” Doherty says.
The report estimates otters have taken about $22.5 million dollars in the species divers harvest, plus Dungeness crab, using the wholesale value. Add in businesses that support the dive and crab industries and the figure grows to just over $28 million dollars.
That includes $9 million dollars of sea cucumbers, just over $4 million dollars in geoducks, almost $4 and a half million dollars in sea urchins, and around $5.3 million of Dungeness crab.
“That’s a very narrow way of looking at sea otters’ role in the ecosystem,” says California activist Jim Curland, who lobbies Congress to continue protecting sea otters.
He says their return to an area where they were virtually extinct is good for the marine ecosystem.
“When you have large colonies of sea urchins, which occurs when you don’t have sea otters, they can destroy kelp forests. And sea otter predation on sea urchins actually enhances the productivity of kelp forests. Scientists have documented this effect in Southeast Alaska and elsewhere over decades of studying this,” Curland says.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act bans most hunting. Alaska Natives can harvest otters for subsistence use. But they can only give or sell whole pelts to other tribal members. Other sales are allowed if the pelt is substantially altered, such as being turned into handicrafts or clothing.
Alaska’s Congressional delegation is pushing legislation that would allow Natives to sell whole pelts to anyone.
Doherty, of the dive fisheries association, says it’s unlikely to pass. But even if it does, it won’t solve the problem.
“If the Natives could sell them as a pelt, that would increase the harvest. But we feel it’s doubtful that even that new legislation would make a significant dent in the population and slow the growth down in the areas where they are most affecting our dive fishery,” he says.
A group of environmental organizations are campaigning against the legislation. Otter activist Curland says it could do a lot of damage to a species that’s recovering.
“You would open up a larger market outside of the Native subsistence hunters in Alaska. You’d start seeing pelts sold to China. They’d show up on Craigslist or eBay or whatever. And I think that demand would create a greater pressure on the hunting of sea otters,” he says.
Doherty says the dive fisheries association funded the recent report to share its concerns.
“We need to make sure everyone is fully aware of what’s going to happen with our shellfish fisheries in Southeast Alaska. And if at the end of the day, people still don’t want to react to it, and they will allow the sea otter population to wipe out the shellfish fisheries in Southeast Alaska, that’s the decision that our divers need to know so they can make a decision as to what their future is going to be,” he says.
A separate U.S. Fish and Wildlife service research effort is trying to determine the extent of sea otter population growth.
It’s shown a 13 percent boost in southern Southeast. Additional research, due out soon, will provide numbers for the northern part of the region.