ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Northern sea otters, once hunted to the brink of extinction along Alaska’s Panhandle, have made a spectacular comeback by gobbling some of the state’s finest seafood — and fishermen are not happy about the competition.
Sea otters dive for red sea urchins, geoduck clams, sea cucumbers — delicacies in Asia markets — plus prized Dungeness crab. They then carry their meals to the surface and float on their backs as they eat, sometimes using rocks to crack open clams and crab. The furry marine mammals, which grow as large as 100 pounds (45 kilograms), eat the equivalent of a quarter of their weight each day.
Phil Doherty, head of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association, is working to save the livelihood of 200 southeast Alaska fishermen and a $10 million industry but faces an uphill struggle against an opponent that looks like a cuddly plush toy.
Fishermen have watched their harvest shrink as sea otters spread and colonize, Doherty said. Divers once annually harvested 6 million pounds (2.7 million kilograms) of red sea urchins. The recent quota has been less than 1 million pounds (454,000 kilograms).
“We’ve seen a multimillion-dollar fishery in sea urchins pretty much go away,” he said.
Jeremy Leighton of Ketchikan dives for sea urchins from his boat. He looks for plump specimens 3.5 to 4.5 inches (9-11.4 centimetres) in diameter, making sure they’re not too big.
“If it’s like a cow tongue, it just doesn’t fit on a sushi roll,” Leighton said. In a bed holding 50,000 pounds (22,680 kilograms) of the spiny shellfish, he might harvest 10 per cent.
Sea otters are not as discriminating. If sea otters have discovered the bed, Leighton finds broken shells on the ocean floor and a handful of sea urchins hidden in rock crannies.
“That’s when you know you’re in trouble,” he said.
Patrick Lemons, Alaska chief of marine mammals management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act limits the agency’s response. Sea otters in southeast Alaska are not listed as threatened or endangered, but the agency cannot intervene to protect commercial fisheries until a species is at “optimum sustainable population.”
“Sea otters are still colonizing southeast (Alaska) and are significantly below ‘carrying capacity’ down there,” Lemons said. Carrying capacity is the number of animals a region can support without environmental degradation.
The agency could develop local management plans within the region with Alaska Natives to protect the catch …read more