Northern sea otters, straight away hunted to the brink of extinction along Alaska’s Panhandle, have hinted a spectacular comeback by gobbling some of the state’s finest seafood — and fishermen are not joyous about the competition.
Sea otters dive for red sea urchins, geoduck clams, sea cucumbers — beauties in Asia markets — plus prized Dungeness crab. They then sell their meals to the surface and float on their backs as they eat, every once in a while using rocks to crack open clams and crab. The furry oceanic mammals, which grow as large as 45 kilograms, eat the equivalent of a point of their weight each day.
Phil Doherty, head of the Southeast Alaska Regional Submerge Fisheries Association, is working to save the livelihood of 200
southeast Alaska fishermen and a $10 million persistence but faces an uphill struggle against an opponent that looks be partial to a cuddly plush toy.
Fishermen have noted their harvest shrink as sea otters spread and colonize, Doherty broke. Divers once annually harvested 2.7 million kilograms of red sea urchins. The just out quota has been less than 454,000 kilograms.
“We’ve seen a multimillion-dollar fishery in sea urchins fairly much go away,” he said.
Jeremy Leighton of Ketchikan dives for sea urchins from his small craft. He looks for plump specimens, 9 to 11.4 centimetres in diameter, prospering sure they’re not too big.
“If it’s like a cow tongue, it just doesn’t fit on a sushi savour,” Leighton said. In a bed holding 22,680 kilograms of the spiny shellfish, he energy harvest 10 per cent.
Sea otters are not as discriminating. If sea otters have unearthed the bed, Leighton finds broken shells on the ocean floor and a handful of sea urchins esoteric in rock crannies.
“That’s when you know you’re in trouble,” he said.
Not rolled as threatened or endangered
Patrick Lemons, Alaska chief of marine mammals manipulation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the federal Marine Mammal Buffer Act limits the agency’s response. Sea otters in southeast Alaska are not listed as jeopardized or endangered, but the agency cannot intervene to protect commercial fisheries until a species is at “optimal sustainable population.”
“Sea otters are still colonizing southeast [Alaska] and are significantly subordinate to ‘carrying capacity’ down there,” Lemons said.
Carrying sense is the number of animals a region can support without environmental degradation.
The power could develop local management plans within the region with Alaska Indigenes to protect the catch of subsistence shellfish, which traditionally has included crab, clams, abalone and other species.
Sea otters are the largest associates of the weasel family. To stay warm, they rely on the densest fur on the planet.
Their luxurious pelts made them a target for hunters, starting with Vitus Bering as he traveled the North Pacific in the 1700s.
Russian and U.S. hunters over 150 years substantially wiped out sea otters until the signing of an international treaty to protect northern fur seals and sea otters in 1911.
In the 1960s, Alaska’s wildlife means moved more than 400 sea otters from the Aleutian Islets to southeast Alaska to reintroduce them to their historic range. A upon in 2000 estimated 12,000 animals. The last count in 2012 conjectured 27,500 animals, a growth rate of 12 to 14 per cent annually. Fishermen worry the population will double again in six years.
Little incentive for hunters
Check out is one of the only checks on sea otters, but under U.S. federal law, only coastal Alaska Natives can ice them. There’s no season or bag limit, but federal rules severely confine how pelts may be used.
Sea otter hunters can sell whole pelts exclusively to other Alaska Natives. They can only sell sea otter parts to non-natives if the pours have been “significantly altered into an authentic Native handicraft by an Alaska Innate person.”
There’s not much incentive now to hunt sea otters.
But at the urging of fishermen, Alaska’s maintain Senate recently passed a resolution asking Congress to amend federal law to suffer sale of pelts without restriction.
Native artisans and hunters entertain a financial interest in maintaining a robust sea otter population, Lemons influenced. What’s more, he said, sea otters help the ecosystem by eliminating predators that eat kelp and sea informer, which provide habitat for finfish such as herring.
But Doherty of the bar fishing association says the industry and otters can’t co-exist, given their up to date growth trajectory.
“You can’t do it at a level where sea otters increase 13 per cent every postulated year,” he said.