Sea Otters vs. Fisheries: The Battle in Southeast Alaska

Sea Otters vs. Fisheries: The Battle in Southeast Alaska

We see this same issue pop up time and time again in other geographical areas with sea otters. This issue isn’t limited to sea otters, but to marine mammals and terrestrial ones alike. The issue seems simple from the outside, but is extremely complex when analyzed: the need for animals to eat to survive versus the commercial, recreational, (and in Alaska’s case) subsistence activities of humans.

So what’s going on in Alaska exactly? Well, the basic survival needs of this charismatic marine mammal are taking a back seat to the misconstrued “exclusive right” to harvest various “resources” by fisheries.

Sea otters feed on over 60 different invertebrate animals, some of which are the target of commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries.  In Southeast Alaska, sea otters prey primarily on geoduck clams and other clams, sea urchins, Dungeness crab, sea cucumber, scallops, snails, and shrimp.  Some fishermen in Southeast Alaska blame sea otters for the demise of these fisheries and are crying out for increased harvest of sea otters to resolve these fisheries conflicts.

Essentially, the proposed solution is fisheries management through “predator control”, something that Friends of the Sea Otter is vehemently opposed to.  Fishing groups, some natives and the Alaska delegate are putting extreme pressure on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “manage” sea otters, another word for culling the population.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently in the process of clarifying the definition of “significantly altered”, which basically determines what can be made from a sea otter pelt; and this process has the potential to open up the floodgates to increased hunting pressure on sea otters in Southeast Alaska and elsewhere in Alaska.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is tasked to conserve the population and use the best possible population status information to determine how best to manage the population towards recovery.  The data is still in the process of being analyzed and it is incumbent upon U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take a conservative approach and not make a management decision that will put more pressure on the population of sea otters.

Sea otters are viewed by some in the fishing community as voracious predators mowing down everything.  The side that is missing from all of this is the beneficial role that sea otters play as keystone species, having a profound effect on the kelp forest ecosystem creating a balance to that system and increasing biodiversity when sea otters are present.  Sea otters also provide ecotourism benefits to visitors to Alaska looking for the experience of viewing wildlife in their natural settings.  And, more recently, sea otters have been touted by researchers as having a dramatic impact on climate change by promoting healthy kelp forests, which, in turn, sequester carbon.

On Thursday, February 21st, a scientific forum in Juneau, Alaska will feature guest speakers: Dr. Jim Estes, Dr. Tim Tinker, Jim Bodkin, Dr. Ginny Eckert, Verena Gill of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and George Esslinger of U.S. Geological Survey.  These experts will be presenting the science behind the population status of sea otters in Southeast Alaska.  Friends of the Sea Otters’ Jim Curland will be attending this.  An article appeared last week in the Juneau Empire co-authored by one of the forum’s speakers, Dr. Ginny Eckert, talking about sea otters in Southeast Alaska.


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