Anti-Otter Legislation Dies in Alaskan Senate!

HJR 26, a non-binding state resolution calling the federal government to implement population control of southeast Alaskan sea otters, died in the committee in the Alaskan state Senate. The bill was essentially in support of HR 2714, a federal bill that promotes increased hunting of Alaskan sea otters, which remains alive in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Management of sea otter populations can only be done at the federal level.

nativeaktake chart Anti Otter Legislation Dies in Alaskan Senate!

Hunting rates for sea otters in southeast Alaska in 2010 and 2011 have almost doubled from the average over the past decade. 2011 numbers are estimates from FWS. Year totals are averaged over 3 years.

The resolution claimed that the 12% sea otter population growth rate reported for Southeast Alaska in 2011 is out of control and negatively impacting commercial fisheries for geoducks, red sea urchins, and sea cucumbers, among others. In fact, population growth in Southeast Alaska is historically low – prior to the 1990s, population growth rates up to 23% were normal in Southeast Alaska.

There is no doubt that fisheries will need to adjust as sea otters recover and return to their historic range, but sea otters are a net benefit for the entire ecosystem. Since the extinction of the sea otter in Southeast Alaska (a direct result of the fur trade in the 1800s) populations of shellfish have exploded without any major predator, causing havoc on the coastal environment. Sea urchins in particular have devastated coastal kelp forest ecosystems due to their insatiable appetite for the roots that connect kelp to the ocean floor. As a result, large swaths of kelp forests (the “rain forests of the sea” because of their role in supporting traditional habitat and nurseries for a wide diversity of sea life) have been mowed down and replaced with comparatively lifeless ocean expanses termed “urchin barrens.”

urchinkelpcomparison Anti Otter Legislation Dies in Alaskan Senate!

Kelp forests (right) support a tremendous diversity of life. Sea otters play a vital role in maintaining kelp ecosystems by culling sea urchin numbers, which left unchecked would consume kelp to the point of deforesting entire regions, transforming them into urchin barrens (left).

As sea otters return, so will the fish that rely on kelp for some part of their life cycle. Pacific Herring, which use kelp as nurseries for commercially viable roe, are part of a multi-million dollar fishery in Southeast Alaska that is likely to benefit from a return of sea otters and kelp forests. Other species of rockfish will also benefit from a flourishing kelp habitat again. Kelp can also slow coastal erosion and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The resolution passed the state House of Representatives on March 19th and was expected to sail through the Senate. Thanks in large part to staunch resistance by the Alaskan Wildlife Alliance the resolution was indefinitely stalled in committee for this legislative session.

Though the Alaskan state resolution has at least been stalled until the next legislative season, the binding and much more dangerous HR 2714 remains in the U.S. House of Representatives. HJR 26 could easily be resurrected in the next session as well.

take action2 Anti Otter Legislation Dies in Alaskan Senate!

HJR 26 was a non-binding state  resolution that recommends the federal government to essentially adopt H.R. 2714 – a bill that would open up the world market for commercially produced sea otter fur.

H.R. 2714 remains alive in the U.S. Congress.

You can TAKE ACTION now to tell your representative that sea otters are more important than fur and to oppose H.R. 2714. Learn more about Alaskan sea otters.

New Study Reiterates Sea Otter’s Importance to Coastal Ecosystem

position1268902 New Study Reiterates Sea Otters Importance to Coastal Ecosystem A new study published in the journal Science describes how important apex predators, including sea otters, are to certain ecosystems.

The study, titled “Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth”, explains how sea otters play an important role in promoting healthy coastal kelp ecosystems by “limiting herbivorous sea urchins” (who feed on kelp) through their rapacious diet. On average, sea otters consume 25-30% of their body weight each day.

Healthy kelp forests, the study explains, then promote robust kelp forest fish populations as well as filter-feeding mussels due to increased particulate organic carbon in coastal waters. Increased fish populations as a result of the kelp forests means birds such as gulls and bald eagles will diversify their diet to include more fish and small mammals and rely less on other birds and macroinvertebrates as part of their overall diet.

The study goes on to describe how physical properties of ecosystems, including forest cover, fire management, and water clarity, can be effected by the presence or absence of apex predators. These predators were long believed to just be “ecological passengers” with little effect on the overall function of an ecosystem. Contrary to that belief, the study finds that some apex predators can have a tremendous impact on an ecosystem by inciting “trophic cascades” like the effects sea otters have on kelp ecosystems.

The authors of the study, including long-time sea otter expert Dr. James Estes, suggest that “top-down forcing” must be assessed in any conceptual overview of an ecosystem. In other words, in addition to assessing physical processes (habitat loss, pollution, etc), resource managers should also assess the abundance of apex predators when determining management plans. Furthermore, the burden of proof should shift to show that “apex predators do not exert strong cascading effects” in an ecosystem rather than trying to prove that they do have an effect as is commonly the case today. In shifting the burden of proof, resource managers will assume apex predators play a role in maintaining an ecosystem until it is proven that they do not. This will result in a more precautionary approach to resource management plans that benefit species like the sea otter.

This study only underscores what sea otter advocates have been saying all along. In addition to their visual and economic appeal, sea otters play a very important role in maintaining a healthy coastal ecosystem full of life and abundance. If we value an ocean teeming with fish and other marine life instead of an open and barren wasteland, then saving the sea otter needs to be our top priority.

Estes, et al. “Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth” Science 15 July 2011: 333 (6040), 301- 306. [DOI:10.1126/science.1205106]