Northern sea otters, as soon as hunted to the brink of extinction alongside Alaska’s Panhandle, have made a spectacular comeback by gobbling among the state’s most interesting seafood — and fishermen will not be happy in regards to the competitors.
Sea otters dive for crimson sea urchins, geoduck clams, sea cucumbers — delicacies in Asia markets — plus prized Dungeness crab. They then carry their meals to the floor and float on their backs as they eat, typically utilizing rocks to crack open clams and crab. The furry marine mammals, which develop as giant as 45 kilograms, eat the equal of a quarter of their weight every day.
Phil Doherty, head of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Affiliation, is working to save lots of the livelihood of 200
southeast Alaska fishermen and a $10 million trade however faces an uphill wrestle in opposition to an opponent that appears like a cuddly plush toy.
Fishermen have watched their harvest shrink as sea otters unfold and colonize, Doherty stated. Divers as soon as yearly harvested 2.7 million kilograms of crimson sea urchins. The latest quota has been lower than 454,000 kilograms.
“We have seen a multimillion-dollar fishery in sea urchins just about go away,” he stated.
Jeremy Leighton of Ketchikan dives for sea urchins from his boat. He seems for plump specimens, 9 to 11.four centimetres in diameter, ensuring they don’t seem to be too huge.
“If it is like a cow tongue, it simply does not match on a sushi roll,” Leighton stated. In a mattress holding 22,680 kilograms of the spiny shellfish, he may harvest 10 per cent.
Sea otters will not be as discriminating. If sea otters have found the mattress, Leighton finds damaged shells on the ocean ground and a handful of sea urchins hidden in rock crannies.
“That is when you are in bother,” he stated.
Not listed as threatened or endangered
Patrick Lemons, Alaska chief of marine mammals administration for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, stated the federal Marine Mammal Safety Act limits the company’s response. Sea otters in southeast Alaska will not be listed as threatened or endangered, however the company can not intervene to guard business fisheries till a species is at “optimum sustainable inhabitants.”
“Sea otters are nonetheless colonizing southeast [Alaska] and are considerably under ‘carrying capability’ down there,” Lemons stated.
Carrying capability is the variety of animals a area can assist with out environmental degradation.
The company may develop native administration plans throughout the area with Alaska Natives to guard the catch of subsistence shellfish, which historically has included crab, clams, abalone and different species.
Sea otters are the most important members of the weasel household. To remain heat, they depend on the densest fur on the planet.
Their luxurious pelts made them a goal for hunters, beginning with Vitus Bering as he explored the North Pacific in the 1700s.
Russian and U.S. hunters over 150 years nearly worn out sea otters till the signing of a global treaty to guard northern fur seals and sea otters in 1911.
Within the 1960s, Alaska’s wildlife company moved greater than 400 sea otters from the Aleutian Islands to southeast Alaska to reintroduce them to their historic vary. A rely in 2000 estimated 12,000 animals. The final rely in 2012 estimated 27,500 animals, a development price of 12 to 14 per cent yearly. Fishermen concern the inhabitants will double once more in six years.
Little incentive for hunters
Searching is without doubt one of the solely checks on sea otters, however beneath U.S. federal legislation, solely coastal Alaska Natives can kill them. There is not any season or bag restrict, however federal guidelines severely prohibit how pelts could also be used.
Sea otter hunters can promote complete pelts solely to different Alaska Natives. They will solely promote sea otter elements to non-natives if the pelts have been “considerably altered into an genuine Native handicraft by an Alaska Native individual.”
There’s not a lot incentive now to hunt sea otters.
However on the urging of fishermen, Alaska’s state Senate just lately handed a decision asking Congress to amend federal legislation to permit sale of pelts with out restriction.
Native artisans and hunters have a monetary curiosity in sustaining a strong sea otter inhabitants, Lemons stated. What’s extra, he stated, sea otters assist the ecosystem by eliminating predators that eat kelp and sea grass, which give habitat for finfish similar to herring.
However Doherty of the dive fishing affiliation says the trade and otters cannot co-exist, given their present development trajectory.
“You may’t do it at a degree the place sea otters improve 13 per cent each given yr,” he stated.