Growing sea otter population threatening livelihoods of Alaska fishermen

Published on
May 31, 2018

Alaska fishermen have a shell to pick with some unlikely opponents – Northern sea otters. 

According to a recent news report from The Associated Press, Northern sea otters have made an impressive comeback from the days when they were being hunted to near extinction along Alaska’s Panhandle. 

However, the now-thriving sea otter community – which dines on several prized species such as red sea urchins, geoduck clams, sea cucumbers, and Dungeness crab – are beginning to threaten the livelihoods of 200 southeast Alaska fishermen and the USD 10 million (EUR 8.5 million) industry they serve, according to Phil Doherty, head of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association. 

As the sea otters have spread and colonized around Alaska’s southeastern region, fishermen have seen their harvests shrink, Doherty told AP. For example, divers who once harvested an annual six million pounds (2.7 million kilograms) of red sea urchins, now face a quota of less than one million pounds (454,000 kilograms), he said.

“We’ve seen a multimillion-dollar fishery in sea urchins pretty much go away,” Doherty said. 

Sea otters, which can grow up to 100 pounds (45 kilograms), typically eat the equivalent of a quarter of their weight each day, the AP reported. Jeremy Leighton of Ketchikan, who dives for sea urchins, knows this well. While Leighton is discerning about the sea urchins he harvests – ideal specimens are 3.5 to 4.5 inches (9-11.4 centimeters) in diameter, he told AP – sea otters that discover the diver’s frequented beds are far less particular, leaving maybe a handful of urchins in their wake.

“That’s when you know you’re in trouble,” Leighton said. 

The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act limits what Patrick Lemons, Alaska chief of marine mammals management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and his agency can do to assuage fishermen’s worries, he told AP. Currently, sea otters in southeast Alaska aren’t listed as threatened or endangered, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot step in to protect commercial fisheries until a species is considered to be at “optimum sustainable population,” according to Lemons.

“Sea otters are still colonizing southeast (Alaska) and are significantly below ‘carrying capacity’ down there,” Lemons said.

“The agency could develop local management plans within the region with Alaska Natives to protect the catch of subsistence shellfish, which traditionally has included crab, clams, abalone and other species,” AP said in its report. 

Back in the 1960s, more than 400 sea otters were transported by Alaska’s wildlife agency from the Aleutian Islands to southeast Alaska as a means to reintroduce them to their historic range. The mammals had been driven and nearly wiped out by Russian and U.S. hunters over the course of 150 years, until an international treaty was signed in 1911 to protect them.

A count of the sea otter population in 2000 estimated 12,000 animals. An estimate in 2012 marked the population at near to 27,500 animals, a growth rate of 12 to 14 percent annually. Fishermen fear the population will double again in six years, the AP said. 

Because of the tremendous growth of the sea otter population, Doherty said he believes that the dive industry and the mammals cannot co-exist. 

“You can’t do it at a level where sea otters increase 13 percent every given year,” he said.

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