On Feb. 21, sea otters were on many people's minds in Juneau, Alaska. In addition to a hearing on proposed legislation changes to the Marine Mammal Protection Act held at the Capitol, the University of Alaska Southeast
also held a Sea Otter Symposium. This dialog on sea otter biology brought many of the country's leading sea otter biologists to Juneau. The experts shared their knowledge with policy makers, students and the general public.
Leading most of the events' talks was Dr. James Estes, a University of Santa Cruz professor who spent decades researching sea otter biology along the coast of Alaska. Estes shared the importance of sea otters to the marine ecosystem. Sea otters are a top predator and feed largely on shellfish. Estes discovered in his research that when sea otters are present, there are few shellfish, and as a result there are healthy kelp forests. Shellfish, namely sea urchins, feed on kelp. Where there are no sea otters, sea urchins multiply uncontrollably and wipe out all kelp in the area. The urchins eat so much kelp that they create an area of sea bottom called urchin barrens. Where there are high quantities of urchins, few other life forms can be sustained in the area. So, we need sea otters to keep shellfish populations in check. Without them, we have an ocean bottom nearly void of life.
Sea otters were hunted from 1741 until 1911 because their pelts were valuable in the fur trade. The mammals have the densest fur coat in the animal kingdom. Otters utilize dense fur, rather than blubber, to insulate themselves in the cold water climates in which they live. It is thought that sea otter numbers neared 300,000 individuals prior to hunting. At the time of the hunting ban in 1911 by the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention
, sea otter numbers were thought to have decimated to about 2,000 individuals. Due to present day protections, the population is estimated at about 107,000 individual otters.
Commercial fisherman have recently proposed legislation changes to reduce regulations on sea otter hunting by native peoples, hunting which is currently legal. The fishermen are frustrated because an increasing sea otter population in Southeast Alaska due to conservation projects has caused a decrease in their shellfish catch. Basically, otters directly compete with human food sources. Both humans and sea otters enjoy eating crabs, clams and urchins.
Six experts who spoke at the Sea Otter Symposium shared their research findings about sea otters. The purpose of the talk was to provide the community with information about sea otter biology, rather than give suggestions for government management. Currently the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act
allows natives to harvest as many sea otters as they like, but uses of the sea otter fur are limited. Proposed legislation to the Marine Mammal Protection Act would merely decrease restrictions on the use of sea otter pelts for native subsistence hunters.
No suggestions were given at the symposium about how legislation changes will affect sea otters. Rather, many difficult questions about the complex issue arose during the discussion:
- Would an increase in privileges for native subsistence hunters of sea otters also cause an increase in intake, or do hunters presently hunt as many otters as they'd like to anyway?
- If sea otter harvest did increase, would increased sea otter hunting lead to another huge decline in sea otter populations as seen in previous centuries?
- Would hunting the growing sea otter population in Southeast Alaska affect other sea otter populations that are presently declining?
- Even with our present knowledge about otters, can humans predict what the future holds for them?
Great questions were asked, but the future of sea otters remains unknown.