Dive fish­er­men plead for re­lief from sea ot­ters

The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH) - - WEATHER - By Dan Jol­ing

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, 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 of red sea urchins. The re­cent quota has been less than 1 mil­lion pounds.

“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 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 of the spiny shell­fish, he might har­vest 10 per­cent.

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 of sub­sis­tence shell­fish, which tra­di­tion­ally has in­cluded crab, clams, abalone and other species.

Sea ot­ters are the largest mem­bers of the weasel fam­ily. To stay warm, they rely on the dens­est fur on the planet.

Their lux­u­ri­ous pelts made them a tar­get for hunters, start­ing with Vi­tus Ber­ing as he ex­plored the North Pa­cific in the 1700s. Rus­sian and U.S. hunters over 150 years vir­tu­ally wiped out sea ot­ters until the sign­ing of an in- ter­na­tional treaty to pro­tect north­ern fur seals and sea ot­ters in 1911.

In the 1960s, Alaska’s wildlife agency moved more than 400 sea ot­ters from the Aleu­tian Is­lands to south­east Alaska to rein­tro­duce them to their historic range. A count in 2000 es­ti­mated 12,000 an­i­mals. The last count in

2012 es­ti­mated 27,500 an­i­mals, a growth rate of 12 to 14 per­cent an­nu­ally. Fish­er­men fear the pop­u­la­tion will dou­ble again in six years.

Hunt­ing is one of the only checks on sea ot­ters, but un­der fed­eral law, only coastal Alaska Na­tives can kill them. There’s no sea­son or bag limit, but fed­eral rules se­verely re­strict how pelts may be used.

Sea ot­ter hunters can sell whole pelts only to other Alaska Na­tives. They can only sell sea ot­ter parts to non-na­tives if the pelts have been “sig­nif­i­cantly al­tered into an au­then­tic Na­tive hand­i­craft by an Alaska Na­tive per­son.”

There’s not much in­cen­tive now to hunt sea ot­ters.

But at the urg­ing of fish­er­men, Alaska’s state Se­nate re­cently passed a res­o­lu­tion ask­ing Congress to amend fed­eral law to al­low sale of pelts with­out re­stric­tion.

Na­tive ar­ti­sans and hunters have a fi­nan­cial in­ter­est in main­tain­ing a ro­bust sea ot­ter pop­u­la­tion, Lemons said. What’s more, he said, sea ot­ters help the ecosys­tem by elim­i­nat­ing preda­tors that eat kelp and sea grass, which pro­vide habi­tat for fin­fish such as her­ring.

But Do­herty of the dive fish­ing as­so­ci­a­tion says the in­dus­try and ot­ters can’t co-ex­ist, given their cur­rent growth tra­jec­tory.

“You can’t do it at a level where sea ot­ters in­crease 13 per­cent ev­ery given year,” he said.

DAN JOL­ING — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

A north­ern sea ot­ter floats on its back while crush­ing a clam shell with its teeth in the small boat har­bor at Se­ward, Alaska.

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