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Threatened sea otters in Southwest Alaska received more protection last week in hopes it will help boost a rebound of their dwindling numbers. There were over 100,000 sea otters in Southwest waters in the 1970s but fewer than 40,000 now. Some areas have seen numbers plummet 90 percent.
Sea otters threatened in Southwest, thriving in Southeast 101409 BUSINESS 1 Capital City Weekly Threatened sea otters in Southwest Alaska received more protection last week in hopes it will help boost a rebound of their dwindling numbers. There were over 100,000 sea otters in Southwest waters in the 1970s but fewer than 40,000 now. Some areas have seen numbers plummet 90 percent.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Story last updated at 10/14/2009 - 1:37 pm

Sea otters threatened in Southwest, thriving in Southeast

Threatened sea otters in Southwest Alaska received more protection last week in hopes it will help boost a rebound of their dwindling numbers. There were over 100,000 sea otters in Southwest waters in the 1970s but fewer than 40,000 now. Some areas have seen numbers plummet 90 percent.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated nearly 6,000 square miles as 'critical habitat' in nearshore waters of the Alaska Peninsula, Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea. Areas close to shore provide most of the shellfish that otters eat; the shallow waters also protect the sea otters from killer whales - a suspected culprit in their demise. The USFWS said the designation should not cause any fishing closures.

It's a far different dilemma in Southeast Alaska, where sea otters are booming.

"Sea otters have one of the most rapid reproductive rates in the mammalian kingdom. They are able to reproduce at any time of the year, and they have a population doubling time of about 5 years," said Nathan Soboleff, who tracks and tags sea otters for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Marine Mammal Office in Juneau.

Current estimates peg the Southeast sea otter population at roughly 10,500 - but that's based on surveys that are over five years old.

As an Alaska Native, Soboleff also can hunt sea otters - one of the few ways to keep the animals in check. Since a USFWS tracking program began in 1989, a total of 14,078 sea otters have been tagged and harvested statewide, Soboleff said.

In Southeast Alaska the sea otters pose a growing threat to several important fisheries, notably Dungeness crab.

However, Soboleff said Native hunting is dropping off considerably.

USFWS data show that Alaska Natives took 704 sea otters statewide in 2007; 633 animals were taken in 2008, and 471 were hunted as of mid-August this year.

"Traditionally, people went out commercial fishing and they would do a lot of harvesting while they were out there," Soboleff explained. "Now, with so many fishing permits gone and economies hurting, people aren't making these long distance treks to harvest marine mammals and other subsistence resources because it is prohibitively expensive. So you're seeing less harvest occur when, in the case of sea otters, we should probably be increasing it."

Soboloff said that a stall in tourism also has cut into the demand for sea otter handicrafts.

"Now, with the state of the world economy, the tourism industry has apparently reached its peak within the Southeast region and may start declining," he said. "So you'll find the push for harvesting sea otters may begin to slow down even more, which would be really bad for commercial fishermen."

"The sea otter is one of the few animals, along with humans, that will go in and fully exploit resources and use them all up without any concern for the eco-system of management of an area," he added.

Meanwhile, all signs indicate that sea otters are expanding their range throughout the Panhandle. Soboleff believes using Alaska Natives to help manage sea otters and other wildlife has promising potential.

"They are a group that should not be overlooked in dealing with this dilemma of the interaction of commercial fisheries and sea otters," Soboleff said.

About 90 percent of the world's sea otters live in Alaska waters. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will conduct an extensive sea otter survey throughout Southeast Alaska next year.

Fishermen's input wanted

The new project that aims to compile labor data on deckhands is on track to go before the Alaska legislature in January. There is virtually no economic data on that Alaska workforce of roughly 20,000 self-employed fishermen.

"The people who work as crew members on fishing boats are probably one of the only groups of laborers in Alaska that is not counted in some way by the state. It's long overdue," said project director Jan Conitz with the ADF&G commercial fisheries division in Juneau.

What is needed now is more input from fishermen, Conitz said, as the contractor (Wostmann & Associates of Juneau) aims to wrap up interviews with agencies and stakeholders this month.

"The purpose of the interviews is to gather information on things like typical practices in fisheries, how people would use the data, what would be the most convenient way for people to report the data, what kind of technology people are using on their boats, things like that," Conitz said.

Three options are being analyzed for the data collection. One would use existing electronic landing reports or fish tickets; the others would require skippers to keep logbooks on all deckhands.

The labor data collection program will need a nod from Alaska lawmakers.

"What we need is specific legislation requiring that data about crew members is reported," Conitz explained. "Currently, it doesn't have to be and it isn't done. And if you have a reporting requirement about data for people, then you have to make sure that the individual confidentiality is protected."

Conitz estimates the price tag to maintain the program at about $250,000. If approved, labor data will be collected from deckhands in every Alaska fishery starting in 2011. Conitz urges fishermen to provide input now while the program is being developed

"It's high time that this important sector of the industry gets counted and gets credited for what they do," she said.

Contact Jan Conitz at 907-465-4125 or jan.conitz@alaska.gov

Listen live!

Can't make it to Anchorage for fish meetings? The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has begun streaming its meetings live over the internet. The NPFMC oversees management of all fisheries in federal waters, meaning from three to 200 miles offshore.

A onetime setup takes about five seconds to install the link that automatically connects you to the NPFMC meeting. Along with hearing the goings-on in real time, viewers can see what issue is being discussed, receive handouts and participate in live chat postings.

"We're not even using all the features yet from the software," said Maria Shawback, council point person for the interactive venture. "There is an interactive

section and a video component - the possibilities are endless."

The NPFMC meeting continues through Oct. 13. Here is the link: https://www.livemeeting.com/cc/npfmc/join?id=NPFMC_October2009&role=attend&pw=

The state Board of Fisheries also uses the 'listen in' technology. The Fish Board manages commercial, sport, subsistence and personal use fisheries in state waters, meaning within three miles from shore.

The BOF begins its meeting cycle at a two day 'organizational' work session starting October 13th at the Anchorage Hilton. The work session is open to the public, although no testimony is taken. The Fish Board meetings this cycle focus on fisheries at Bristol Bay, the Alaska Peninsula, Aleutian Islands and the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim (AYK) regions.

Fish photos and high five

Oct. 15 is the deadline to submit Alaska fishing photos to www.pacificfishing.com. Winning photos will be used in promotions for Alaska Airlines and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The top prize is two round trip plane tickets.

Congratulations to seafood scientist Chuck Crapo of Kodiak who has received a prestigious international award for his development of new seafood products and more efficient processing methods. He also has trained thousands of seafood workers to meet state and federal standards for seafood safety and quality. Crapo is with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory program and does most of his research at the Fishery Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak, a branch of the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.


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