Efforts to ease conflicts over Southeast Alaska’s growing sea otter population are underway. Federal and state officials recently met with scientists, fishermen and tribal groups in Juneau to find solutions.
A hundred years ago, the fur trade wiped out sea otters in Southeast Alaska. They were reintroduced in the 1960s with 412 animals brought from Amchitka Island and Prince William Sound.
Since then, they’ve done really well. The last official estimate in 2012 shows that there are more than 25,000 of them.
But their success has changed their environment as they’re a keystone species.
“That means they have a bigger effect than almost any other animal for their size on their ecosystems,” said USGS Western Ecological Research Center Research Biologist Tim Tinker. “Many of those effects are really disruptive to the existing, you know, commercial activities like shell fisheries that have developed.”
Their primary food source includes shellfish. Many of them are commercially harvested species like red sea urchin and geoduck clams. They also eat sea cucumbers.
Collectively these are known as Southeast Alaska’s dive fisheries and last year they brought in about $12.4 million.
Phil Doherty, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association, said that when you add up all of divers, the deckhands, tenders and processors on the slime line, it’s significant for the winter economy.
“I mean, we’re employing you know, five to six hundred people for four or five months,” Doherty told a room of about 100 interested stakeholders in Juneau. “So from an economic point of view, these dive fisheries are important.”
But even if federal and state managers wanted to curb the growing sea otter population, their options are limited. For one, they can’t just open a hunt on sea otters. The otters are covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That means they can only be hunted by coastal Alaska Native people for subsistence or traditional crafts.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Fishery Biologist Kyle Hebert said state fisheries managers have a hard job managing commercial stocks depleted by foraging otters.
“We feel pressure from industry to elevate harvest rates to try to take advantage of those species before they’re gone,” he said. “We also feel pressure and criticism for not reducing our harvests because of the sea otters.”
After a day-long meeting in Juneau, wildlife and fisheries managers, fishing industry and tribal representatives formed committee to recommend ways to manage the species.
A draft is expected by the end of the year.
But, that’s assuming the federal government isn’t shutdown later this month. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chief of Marine Mammals Management in Alaska Patrick Lemons said a looming political impasse in Washington D.C. could set things back.
“If we don’t have a government shutdown, we want to have a report available and produced on our website sometime early in the calendar year of 2020,” he told CoastAlaska.
The continuing conflict between fishermen and sea otters is not new. Nor is it limited to Alaska.
Tinker, the researcher who works out of the University of California in Santa Cruz, said it’s happening up and down the Pacific coast.
“There’s no simple solution,” Tinker said. “But I think with all the stakeholders working together, you know, people with different interests and different understandings of these ecosystems, I think I think there are solutions, but it’s going to be it’ll be a long road.”
He recently published a paper estimating that Southeast Alaska’s carrying capacity could be three times the present population. That’d be around 75,000 sea otters over the next 30 to 40 years.