January 19, 2012 | Vol. 39, No. 3

Alaska Board of Fisheries hear of adverse impacts from growing sea otter population

Sea otter population in Southeast Alaska is increasing, and consequently, the animals are depleting marine life, causing an adverse economic impact to local fisheries, according to a presentation given by fisheries experts at the Sons of Norway in Petersburg Sunday night.

The presentation was a part of the weeklong Alaska Board of Fisheries meetings being held in Petersburg.

The Board’s main role is to “conserve and develop the fishery resources of the state,” according to its website.

However, Alaskan Fisheries Board Chair Karl Johnstone said while “everybody will agree there is some sort of adverse impact on the fisheries here,” due to sea otters, there was actually little the Board could do to help the situation.

“Your recourse is not with the Board, it’s with the State,” Johnstone told the group of presenters which included representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and members of fisheries organizations.

Verena Gill of the FWS said, based on the federal agency’s surveys, there are about 20,000 sea otters now in Southeast Alaska, up from around 10,500 between 2002 and 2003.

Dr. Ginny Eckert, a Marine Ecosystem Sustainability in the Arctic and Subarctic Program (MESAS) Director and associate professor of fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, as well as a marine ecologist and shellfish biologist, presented data collected during two years-worth of observing sea otters in Southeast Alaska, which shows a number of species are being heavily impacted by the predation of the sea otter.

Commercially important species, such as Dungeness crab, sea cucumbers, geoducks and shrimp, make up about 57 percent of a sea otter’s diet, according to the preliminary data, Eckert said.

Sea urchins make up a significant part of that 57 percent, she said, but are not commercially important.

“So, if we exclude that, the sea otter diet of commercially important species would be 19 percent,” Eckert said.

Petersburg resident Mike Bangs, a member of the Southeast Alaska Regional Advisory Council to the Federal Subsistence Board, said communities in this area of the state depend on those resources being consumed by the sea otters.

“This is an important staple in their daily life, let alone the impacts to the resources for commercial take,” he said.

Phil Doherty, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries, Association, said in the last ten to 15 years, Southeast Alaska dive fisheries and crab fisheries have lost more than an estimated $22 million of value due to sea otter predation.

“It’s beginning to be a large percentage of Southeast Alaska being impacted by sea otters,” Doherty said.

Board member Mike Smith of Juneau said the board could possibly play a role in the sea otter discussion by offering its opinion on the issues. Smith suggested the board write letters or voice its support for any litigation in Congress that might offset the adverse impacts of sea otters in Southeast Alaska.

Doherty said his role in the sea otter discussion was to make the issue as public as possible so people are not surprised when local fisheries go out of business.

“Everyone is going to know why they don’t exist anymore, or they exist at such a level that they are really not economically viable,” he said. “That day will come, in my opinion.”

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