What many Americans consider to be a cute, back-floating mammal is a pest, even a thief, to some Southeast Alaskan fishermen.
Humans and sea otters enjoy consuming the same bottom-dwelling seafood: Dungeness crabs, clams, sea cucumbers and urchins.
But in some areas these organisms have completely disappeared, according to Phil Doherty, director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association (SARDFA).
This has increased competition between dive fishermen and sea otters.
Harriet Wadley has been a commercial sea cucumber diver for 27 years. She dove for abalone until the dive fishery closed in 1996.
“We had an abalone fishery here until the otters ate us out of it,” she said. “And then I switched about the time that the abalone fishery was dying, the sea cucumbers started up.”
A paper published by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2014 says the sea otter population is growing by 12 to 14 percent a year, which equates to 3,000 more animals in 2015 than 2014. And more otters mean an expansion of their range.
Before reintroduced in the 1960s sea otters were absent in Southeast for over a century, driven to extinction by the Russian fur trade.
But now they seem to have the leading edge on humans.
In 2011, a study by SARDFA documented $22.4 million dollar losses to commercial fisheries as a direct result of predation by otters.
“We harvest at a very, very low rate: 2-4% of the population of the species per year. And in areas where sea otters have expanded into they eat just about everything,” Doherty said.
Many sea cucumber, clam and urchin dive fishing areas have been closed to commercial fishing because sea otters have eaten the areas bare, he said.
It wasn’t easy starting out as a female fisherman, Wadley said. She was inexperienced — green but eager. A diver with a good reputation eventually agreed to take her out for abalone.
“I ended up getting more poundage than the rest of the divers put together,” she said.
Now Wadley owns her own 45-foot boat named “Vulcan.” She has a sea cucumber quota and manages her own personal dive fishing operation. Wadley and one other person take her boat out for seven-hour fishery openings.
She swims to the ocean bottom with four empty bags and a tank of oxygen on her back. Her partner waits on the boat. He will pull up the heavy bags packed with cucumbers.
“Boy, once you get underwater, I mean, it’s beautiful down there,” Wadley said.
But the last few times she went out, cucumbers were pretty “skinny.”
“When you get into an area where there are sea otters it looks like a World War II bombed out zone,” she said. “There’s dust everywhere. They do a lot of damage to the bottom.”
Wadley said sea otters like abalone best, so that fishery closed first. Next it was urchins, and then cucumbers. Geoduck clams are next, she said.
“They’re totally eating us out of house and home.”
The Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association (SARDFA) supports legislation to reduce sea otter numbers by incentivizing harvests by Alaska Natives.
But in 2014 another fishing group, the Southeast Herring Conservation Alliance (SHCA), wrote in a public comment that the herring fishery benefited from a greater abundance of sea otters.
SHCA wrote that an increase in sea otter harvest by Natives could trickle down to a reduction in herring spawning habitat, in turn reducing herring abundance.
Federal law prohibits hunting of marine mammals in American waters; Alaska Native subsistence hunters are exempt from the law.
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife documents, 1,137 sea otters were harvested statewide this year.
177 sea otters were reportedly taken in Sitka, down from 349 animals in 2014 and 550 in 2013. In the past, Sitka has documented more harvested otters than any other city in the state. Over the last 25 years, Hoonah reported less than a third of the harvest by Sitka, and Ketchikan a sixth.
But this year, Hoonah’s reported harvest more than tripled from 49 sea otters in 2014 to 180 animals so far in 2015.
Nathan Soboleff is a contracted sea otter tagger for Fish and Wildlife in Juneau. He is also a Tlingit-Haida marine mammal hunter of the Raven-Dog Salmon clan.
Soboleff said that after a hunt, Natives have 30 days to bring the otter’s hide and skull to an office for tagging. To legally document the animal, he places a tag through the nose of the hide. He also removes a pre-molar tooth from the skull and keeps it for research.
“It’s like a growth ring on a tree. So they will sand down the tooth and read the growth rings on them,” Soboleff said.
In 2011 and 2013, bills were introduced by federal and state lawmakers to create incentives for Natives to hunt more sea otters. The proposed bills were supporting the declining commercial Dungeness crab and dive fisheries.
In 2013, state Sen. Bert Stedman, (R-Sitka), introduced a bill proposing a $100 bounty for each sea otter harvested by an Alaska Native.
The bill did not pass.
Mike Miller, chair of the Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals (IPCoMM), said that Natives were mostly opposed to the bounty bill.
Miller, who lives in Sitka, said his group supports legislation that encourages economic opportunity for Native communities, but “the one thing we didn’t want to do was inadvertently to change from that goal to a predator control issue which is more just about getting rid of the animal.”
But Phil Doherty, SARDFA, said that Native subsistence and commercial fishing interests aligned.
“It is a win-win,” he said.
According to Doherty, the bill proposal was about “trying to help the Native hunters pay for some of their expenses.”
But Miller said that the enacted bill could have caused a flood in the market of sea otter pelts, which would drive their value down and ultimately harm Native communities.
During state legislative session last February, minutes report Senator Stedman said, “Otters continue to proliferate and they are more invasive than humans.”
He did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Doherty, the fate of Southeast dive fisheries lies in the hands of politicians in Washington, tied up in the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Harriet Wadley said she doesn’t understand why the government prohibits hunting of sea otters by non-Natives.
“We control every other population: deer, bear, wolves. We keep every population in control and under balance,” she said. “Why is it because this creature is cute that we can’t maintain a balance and open up a hunting season on them?”
Wadley estimates the sea cucumber fishery has six years of life left if nothing is done about otters.
After that, she says she’ll be done diving.
Wadley said she doesn’t know what will come next. Maybe winter kings, or perhaps vacation.