Alaska’s uneasy relationship with sea otters
On a stormy night in 1741, the Russian expedition ship St. Peter wrecked on a desolate island in the Bering Sea. Riddled by scurvy, the crew spent a miserable winter burying their dead and wondering how to escape.
Their survival hinged upon a plentiful supply of sea otter meat and warm pelts. The following summer, the expedition managed to reach Kamchatka, igniting a manic craze for otter fur. Men and ships set sail for North America in pursuit of the “soft gold,” determined to make their fortune in the fur trade.
Otter fur is among the thickest of any animal on the planet. Sink your fingers into the plush pelage and you’ll quickly understand why Russians, Chinese, and Europeans clamored for otter pelts. In a single square inch, an otter can produce over 900,000 hairs, fetching exorbitant figures for a single hide.
Fur ships traded with or enslaved Native people for pelts, plunging the otter population into notable decline by the 1810s. Russia finally deemed Alaska valueless and sold it to the United States for $7 million. In 1867, the New York World quipped, “Russia has sold us a sucked orange.” No otters. A sour deal.
The otter hunt continued for the next 50 years until the population was virtually abolished. Prior to hunting, there were about 300,000 sea otters covering a range from northern Japan to Baja, California. By the early 1900s, there were probably less than 1,000 otters left alive.
In an effort to save the remaining otters and heavily hunted fur seals, the United States, Britain, Russia, and Japan signed the 1911 Fur Seal Treaty. This exceptional agreement to protect fur-bearing mammals included sea otters and was the first international treaty to address wildlife conservation. Still, sea otters hovered on the brink of extinction. Fortunately for otters, reproduction is a year-round sport practiced at frequent intervals. Consequently, the newly protected population bounced back. A group of otters spotted in the 1930s off the California coast gained a great deal of publicity, but the next time otters hit national news was in 1965.
Amchitka, a lonely Aleutian island home to over 1,000 otters, was slated for multiple underground nuclear tests. Public outcry forced the government to remove hundreds of otters. Between 1965 and 1972, Amchitka otters were released from Alaska to Oregon to repopulate their original territory. Over 400 were deposited in southeast Alaska, some near the mouth of Glacier Bay National Park. When otters were first spotted in the park, researchers sprang into action, diving underwater to compare the ecosystem before and after otter colonization. The pre-otter environment, lacking its apex predator, boasted an abnormal volume of massive sea urchins, crabs, and mollusks—a veritable otter buffet.
What happens when a top predator returns from a two-century hiatus? Complete revamping of the marine ecosystem. A 100-pound male might consume 25 pounds of shellfish daily, a figure multiplied by thousands of otters over decades, resulting in a dramatic shift in Glacier Bay’s ecology. Prey species shrank in size and quantity and researchers saw kelp, a staple of the sea urchin diet, rebound. Kelp forests create habitat, structure, and biodiversity, so by doing what they do best—eating—otters reshaped the underwater landscape. Perry Williams, assistant professor of quantitative ecology at University of Nevada, Reno, joined the otter study in 2016. He and his colleagues fly over the park, shoot thousands of aerial photos to count otters, and use mathematical models and statistics to estimate the population and distribution. Their results have been astounding.
Between 1993 and 2012, Glacier Bay’s otter population exploded at a rate of 21 percent annually, effectively doubling every few years. Though growth has slowed in recent years, and in some parts of Alaska otters are declining, the park’s population holds steady. Today, Williams estimates the park has 6,000-12,000 otters. Why so many? He points to Glacier Bay as one of the largest intact ecosystems in North America and the fact sea otters are federally protected, relatively undisturbed, and at the top of the food pyramid.
If you’re a tourist, this story is charming, complete with fuzzy cuteness personified. If you’re a commercial fisherman whose livelihood is based on crab, urchins, sea cucumbers, and abalone, you’ve got a very different perspective. Otters and fishermen catch the same species, putting them at loggerheads over a shared resource, which had burgeoned in the otters’ absence. Alaska lawmakers have requested Congress slacken otter protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, allowing culling and possibly a bounty to help fisheries rebound.
For now, however, Alaska’s sea otters continue to expand in many areas, restructuring their ecosystem with each meal. This is a story not only about otters, but also about mankind. Humans hunted otters almost to extinction, yet ultimately protected and reintroduced the species. The sea otter is symbolic of mankind’s uneasy relationship to top predators and a chapter in an ongoing story of Alaska’s changing ecosystems.
Emily Mount is a naturalist, writer, and photographer. She previously worked as a ranger at Glacier Bay National Park.