Southeast Alaska’s sea otters swing from boom to bust to boom

[by Cheryl Lyn Dybas]

young warrior named Natsilane was destined to become chief of his tribe, folktales of the Tlingit and Haida peoples of Southeast Alaska say. Natsilane’s brothers were jealous of his stature, however, and plotted to depose him. The brothers took Natsilane out to sea, ostensibly to fish, then threw him overboard and rowed away.

But the chief-to-be wasn’t alone in the deep blue sea. He was rescued by a sea otter who carried him to an island. The otter took care of the boy, showing him the best hunting and fishing grounds. Eventually, though, the sea otter had to return to its life in the water. It offered a last gift to Natsilane, a pouch of seeds, telling him to sow them across the island. Natsilane complied, and the seeds grew into tall trees. He then used wood from the trees to build a boat, returned to his village, and became chief. To this day, according to legend, the lives of humans and sea otters are intertwined.

Out of Balance

Intertwined, but not in balance, says Dennis Nickerson, environmental planner for the Organized Village of Kasaan, a federally-recognized Alaska tribal government established in 1938. The village perches on the east side of Prince of Wales Island, some 30 miles northwest of Ketchikan.

Like the gold rush, Nickerson says, we’ve gone from boom to bust to boom in our relationship with sea otters.

To track the number of sea otters and their effects on fisheries, biologists Ginny Eckert of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Verena Gill of the U.S. Department of the Interior and other scientists are working together on the Alaska Sea Grant-supported Southeast Alaska Sea Otter Project.

Fortune-seekers from Siberia

In the early 1700s, the global sea otter population was estimated at 150,000 to 300,000 otters, according to Eckert. Then came the Russian explorers who would turn fur-traders. Unlike most marine mammals, sea otters stay warm, not with blubber, but with thick coats of fur. To Russian explorers, otter fur was a siren call.

“Fortune-seekers from Siberia reaped a harvest of riches more fabulous than the Spanish conquistadors,” wrote Harold McCracken in his 1957 book Hunters of the Stormy Sea, an account of early sea otter hunting expeditions. “The sea otter’s was the most valuable fur on earth. As a result, these golden fleeces of the stormy northern seas were virtually exterminated.”

Extensive harvest over the next 150 years resulted in near-extirpation of the species. By the time sea otters were given protection under the North Pacific Fur Seal Treaty of 1911, fewer than 2,000 otters remained in 13 colonies.

Sea Otter Reintroductions

“For many years sea otters were considered extinct,” wrote McCracken. One scientist of the late 1800s, Henry Elliott, searched for them throughout sea otter country. In an 1887 report, Elliott noted that he couldn’t locate a single live otter.

After the 1911 treaty, sea otters began to rebound. But no otters survived in Southeast Alaska. “Something more appropriate should be made available for the proper rehabilitation of one of America’s most interesting wild creatures, which has provided mankind so much and which the greedy avarice of mankind brought so close to the limbo of total extermination,” McCracken stated.

“We spot otters in every bay along the Inside Passage,” says McCarthy. “In many areas where there were none, now there are up to 100 locked arm-in-arm.”

As if in answer, between 1965 and 1969, 412 otters from Amchitka Island and Prince William Sound were translocated to sites in Southeast Alaska. In 1972, sea otters were further protected under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. Today, the region’s sea otter population is estimated at a healthy 25,712 otters. But that’s still less than what it likely was before the days of the fur trade, says Eckert.

The Latest Threat

What are 25,712 otters eating?

Sea cucumbers, among other commercially important species, are feasts for the otters, found researcher Sean Larson of UAF.

“Sea cucumbers and other species are no longer viable fisheries,” argues Phil Doherty, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association (SARDFA). SARDFA’s members harvest sea cucumbers, geoducks and other sub-tidal species. “With no end in sight [to increasing sea otter numbers], some of the fisheries are inevitably going to go away.”

But Eckert says that “the abundance of shellfish that supported these commercial fisheries was likely anomalous and happened because so many sea otters were removed [by fur traders]. Now otters are beginning to return to their pre-harvest numbers.”

When sea otters first move into an area, commercially important shellfish indeed can make up the majority of the otters’ diets, according to UAF biologist Zac Hoyt. But where otters have lived for 15 years or more, commercial species add up to less than ten percent of their hauls. “Once otters have been around for a while, their diets shift from a few species to a big diversity,” says Eckert. “That range includes non-commercial crabs, shrimp and small fish like Pacific sand lance.” The otters also control populations of urchins that would otherwise mow down kelp forests and take out entire ecosystems.

Finding a Balance

Some Southeast Alaskans like Keegan McCarthy of Juneau, owner of the m.v. Sikumi and Custom Alaska Cruises, see benefits from more sea otters: increased wildlife-viewing opportunities and a boost to ecotourism.

“We spot otters in every bay along the Inside Passage,” says McCarthy. “In many areas where there were none, now there are up to 100 locked arm-in-arm. Wrapped up in kelp, they watch as our boat or kayaks pass by. Clients love them.”

He’s concerned, though, that fishers may be forced out of their livelihoods. Somewhere, McCarthy says, there has to be a middle ground.

“Although otters and humans are sometimes in the way of each other,” offers Nickerson, “all of us have a right to sustenance from the sea. People need to come together at levels from the local to the national to find solutions.”

We owe it to sea otter, Natsilane might say, and to ourselves.

B-Roll: Sea Otters from NOAA Fisheries on Vimeo.

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