The Southern Southeast Alaska Sea Otter Project

Examining the impact of sea otter recolonization on commercial and subsistence fisheries in southern Southeast Alaska

The Southern Southeast Alaska Sea Otter Project seeks to conduct research and provide information to subsistence and commercial fishermen, wildlife and fisheries managers, and the general public on the predicted impacts of sea otter population growth in southern Southeast Alaska on important shellfish and invertebrate species.

As the number and range of sea otters in southeastern Alaska have grown, so has the level of concern among commercial and subsistence fishermen who harvest clams, crabs, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. Areas previously open to commercial harvest have either been closed by state managers or have been determined by fishermen to no longer hold enough resources to warrant any fishing effort. Subsistence users also report declining crab and shellfish harvests in areas recently recolonized by sea otters.

otter and prey

During foraging studies, researchers estimate prey size by comparing it to the size of the otter's paw. Photo courtesy of Randall Davis, Alice Cove Research, USFWS #MA–043219.

This project brings together students and faculty from the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and wildlife biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to examine the population, distribution, movement, and diet of sea otters in the region.

In two projects funded by Alaska Sea Grant—Ecological, Economic, and Social Changes as a Result of Sea Otter Recolonization in Southern Southeast Alaska and Impacts of Sea Otter Recolonization on Marine Resources and Coastal Communities in Southern Southeast Alaska—researchers conducted population abundance estimates of sea otters on the outside coast of southern Southeast Alaska using aerial surveys in summer 2010. From 2010 to 2012, researchers set up shore-based sampling stations on Prince of Wales, Kuiu, and Kupreanof islands to record foraging statistics including prey size and type, dive time, and surface intervals. These data are being analyzed in conjunction with sea otter population survey data, information gathered from the public on sea otter sightings, and Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) fisheries data sets to provide an estimate of commercially important species being consumed by sea otters.

A parallel project funded by the North Pacific Research Board, Sea Otter Recolonization and Interactions with Commercially Important Macroinvertebrates in Southeast Alaska, is examining the movement, habitat use, and prey selection of sea otters in an area that otters have recently colonized near Kake, Alaska, on Kupreanof Island. Researchers implanted 31 otters with VHF radio tags and have been tracking their movements, habits and diets for two years. The information obtained about the diets of otters as they move into new territories will be combined with the information from the Alaska Sea Grant–funded project to refine our predictions about the impacts of otters. Learn more about the capture and tagging process.

During both projects, outreach meetings have been regularly held to gather and share information with fishermen and other shellfish users. Meetings have taken place on Prince of Wales Island and in Ketchikan, Petersburg, and Kake, as well as with other interested parties through videoconferencing. Outreach meetings will occur in these communities in summer 2013, and a workshop focusing on fisheries management responses to sea otter recolonization is planned in 2014.

Finding meaningful solutions to the problem that sea otter population growth presents to commercial, sport, and subsistence users is impossible without a good understanding of the extent and nature of sea otter use of targeted crab and shellfish species. The goal of the Southern Southeast Alaska Sea Otter Project is to provide that understanding by gathering robust data and sharing that information with interested parties.

The 6-minute video below offers more information about this project.

Research team

Project crew Project partners (left to right) Sunny Rice, Zac Hoyt, Ginny Eckert, and Verena Gill in Craig, July 2010.

Our sponsors

In addition to project funding provided by Alaska Sea Grant and the North Pacific Research Board, the Southern Southeast Alaska Sea Otter Project has received donations from the Southeast Alaska Dive Fishermen's Association, Icicle Seafoods, Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, Southeast Alaska Subsistence Resource Advisory Council, and the Petersburg Marine Mammal Center. Thank you for your support!