Sea otters are expanding throughout Southeast Alaska and dining on crab, sea cucumbers, geoduck clams and more as they go.
An ongoing study aims to track the otters, what they’re eating and where they are going – and researchers hope to get ‘grounds truth’ from Southeast residents.
For the past two years, Sea Grant marine advisory agents have spearheaded a project to learn more about the region’s sea otter diets and behaviors. The US Fish & Wildlife Service has provided aerial surveys and otter tagging to track their movements around Kupreonof Island, and ADF&G helps with logistics and data.
“This is just for Southern Southeast Alaska,” said Sea Grant’s Sunny Rice in Petersburg. “It includes Kupreanof Island, Prince of Wales Island, Kuiu Island and inside in the Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell areas. We’ve sort of drawn a line at Frederick Sound, although we will be interested in how they’ve moved up the north shore.”
Aerial surveys have provided snapshots of otter activity but Rice wants to hear about otter sightings from longtime residents.
“We want to learn when they first saw otters entering the areas they use on a regular basis, when they started seeing bigger groups if they did, and if they noticed what those otters were eating,” Rice explained, adding that it’s most important to hear from people with a long-term perspective.
“People who frequent those areas continually year after year, so commercial fishermen will be great sources as well as recreational or subsistence users who to the same place time after time and have witnessed an influx of sea otters,” she said.
The resident surveys will be combined with other research to make some otter predictions.
“Hopefully, we can use that information and add it to what we know and come up with a good model on how the sea otter population has expanded, with the long term goal of being able to predict how it will continue to grow so people can make decisions based on more information,” Rice said.
Sea otters were reintroduced to the southern regions in the late 1960s. Best estimates peg the population at about 19,000 animals in 2011. The animals are able to reproduce at any time of the year, and have a population doubling time of about 5 years. The otters are predators of almost every species that fishermen target; they have completely wiped out urchins and sea cucumbers in several areas, and are making inroads into some prime geoduck areas, according to Phil Doherty, director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fishery Association. Out of 15 Dungeness crab districts, six have large otter populations and Dungie pots have lost nearly 3 million pounds to otters in a decade, based on ADF&G estimates. A report last year by the Juneau-based McDowell Group said otter predation has cost Southeast’s economy over $28 million since 1995.
Sunny Rice hopes to interview as many people as possible this summer and will travel to Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan later this month. The confidential interviews will take about an hour, she said. Contact her at 907-772-3381or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .