A century after humans hunted sea otters to near extinction in Alaska, the otters are back, and it’s their turn to hunt.
Sea otters were nearly wiped out because of fur trade-related hunting during the 1800s, according to framing documents for a Southeast Sea Otter Stakeholder Meeting held Wednesday at the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum. In the 1960s, 412 otters from Amchitka Island and Prince William Sound were introduced to sites around Southeast Alaska.
“Those populations have now grown and spread throughout much of Southeast Alaska,” said Tim Tinker with Nhydra Ecological Consulting during a presentation. “The density has also increased in areas. That was a really remarkable pattern in increase in range and increase in population.”
There’s now an estimated 25,584 sea otters in Southeast Alaska, and the voracious animals are tangibly affecting ecosystems and businesses.
“If you’ve got more sea otters over time, that means more predation on their important prey resources,” Tinker said.
The effects of the still-growing otter population and what could and should be done to address it were discussed during the morning portion of the Wednesday meeting.
Sea otters consume up to a quarter of its body weight every day, according to the meeting’s framing documents. That’s about 15 to 25 pounds of food.
Their prey in Southeast Alaska includes sea cucumber, geoduck, red sea urchin, abalone and dungeness crab among others.
“We have fairly compelling evidence in our data sets that show once sea otters move into an area, these species rapidly decline,” said Kyle Heber, fisheries biologist for Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Phil Doherty with Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association, said the voracious animals have a negative impact for dive fisheries since fewer invertebrates translates to less money for dive fishers.
Not just bad news
Otters aren’t just a slick-furred wave of pestilence rolling through Southeast’s waters. Some nearby locales are purposefully trying to replicate the presence of otters.
Lynn Lee, a marine ecologist with Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, said at the Canadian national park located near the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, they’re actually trying to mimic otter predation.
Lee said without otters, the urchin population is threatening the area’s kelp forests, which are desirable because they increase shoreline protection, increase the carbon cycle, lessen ocean acidification and provide habitat and breeding area for desirable fish.
“Having giant kelp around is really good for herring,” Lee said.
Within areas where humans have removed urchins, Lee said there has been visible improvements in kelp health and biodiversity.
“It’s like a clear cut on land that is growing back,” Lee said. “After a decade, you start to get all of these species coming back.”
While it may mean fewer sea cucumbers and urchins, Lee said otter presence could mean more rockfish, herring and possibly large shellfish over time.
“The conditions we have today are the result of the loss of sea otters, and now we’re learning to re-live with sea otters as they come back into the system,” she added.
If limiting sea otter population is the desired direction, harvesting the animals could be part of the solution.
It was one of the main ideas for curbing otter population shared during the meeting’s afternoon session.
Alaska Natives are allowed to harvest the otters under an exemption in the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Tinker said there’s some evidence that harvesting the animals has had an impact on their numbers in Southeast.
“If there had been no harvest, there would be slightly more sea otters than there are now,” he said. “Maybe 5% more sea otters. It’s measurable, but it’s not incredibly huge.”
When harvested, otters are typically used for their fur, which is an effort encouraged by Sealaska Heritage Institute’s skin-sewing workshops that are part of a sustainable arts program. So, creating more demand for sea otter fur could be part of a solution, stakeholders said.
Chief Operating Officer for SHI Lee Kadinger said since SHI received funding for training skin sewers in 2013, a total of 360 people have been trained in beginning skin sewing and 28 people have been trained in advanced skin sewing.
In 2012, there were five artists making sea otter products, in 2019 there are 44 artists making sea otter products, Kadinger said.
“Prior to the reintroduction of sea otters in Southeast Alaska, there were no sea otters here, so that lost art of skin sewing. It was a lost art, so the need for training was very high,” Kadinger said.