Dive fish­er­men plead for re­lief from north­ern sea ot­ters

The News Herald (Willoughby, OH) - - WEATHER - By Dan Jol­ing The As­so­ci­ated Press

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, 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.

Sea ot­ters are not as dis­crim­i­nat­ing.

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