Dive fishermen plead for relief from northern sea otters
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.