Researchers seek data about fishermen's rivals: Otters

June 9, 2012 

Sea otters are expanding throughout Southeast Alaska and dining on crab, sea cucumbers, geoduck clams and more as they go.

An ongoing study aims to track the otters, what they're eating and where they are going -- and researchers hope to get "grounds truth" from Southeast residents.

For the past two years, Sea Grant marine advisory agents have spearheaded a project to learn more about the region's sea otter diets and behaviors.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has provided aerial surveys and otter tagging to track their movements around Kupreanof Island, and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game helps with logistics and data.

"This is just for southern Southeast Alaska," said Sea Grant's Sunny Rice in Petersburg. "It includes Kupreanof Island, Prince of Wales Island, Kuiu Island and inside in the Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell areas. We've sort of drawn a line at Frederick Sound, although we will be interested in how they've moved up the north shore."

Aerial surveys have provided snapshots of otter activity but Rice wants to hear about otter sightings from longtime residents.

"We want to learn when they first saw otters entering the areas they use on a regular basis, when they started seeing bigger groups, if they did, and if they noticed what those otters were eating," Rice explained, adding that it's most important to hear from people with a long-term perspective.

"People who frequent those areas continually year after year, so commercial fishermen will be great sources as well as recreational or subsistence users who go to the same place time after time and have witnessed an influx of sea otters," she said.

The resident surveys will be combined with other research to make some otter predictions.

"Hopefully, we can use that information and add it to what we know and come up with a good model on how the sea otter population has expanded, with the long-term goal of being able to predict how it will continue to grow so people can make decisions based on more information," Rice said.

Sea otters were reintroduced to the southern regions in the late 1960s. Best estimates peg the population at about 19,000 animals in 2011. The animals are able to reproduce at any time of the year, and have a population doubling time of about 5 years.

The otters are predators on almost every species that fishermen target; they have wiped out urchins and sea cucumbers in several areas and are making inroads into some prime geoduck areas, according to Phil Doherty, director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fishery Association.

Out of 15 Dungeness crab districts, six have large otter populations and Dungie pots have lost nearly 3 million pounds to otters in a decade, based on ADF&G estimates.

A report last year by the Juneau-based McDowell Group said otter predation has cost Southeast's economy over $28 million since 1995.

Rice hopes to interview as many people as possible this summer and will travel to Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan later this month. The confidential interviews will take about an hour, she said. Contact her at 907-772-3381 or via email at sunny.rice@alaska.edu.

Riutta retiring from ASMI

After 10 years at the helm of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, executive director Ray Riutta is stepping down.

"It's time to bring in some new blood and new ideas," he said.

Prior to ASMI, Admiral Riutta spent 38 years in the Coast Guard. Now, retirement is looking pretty good.

During his tenure, Riutta said he is most proud of ASMI's role in helping to revitalize Alaska's salmon industry.

"We've participated in seeing the resurgence in value of the Alaska salmon fishery by orders of magnitude. I think of all the things that have happened through the 10 years I've been here, seeing that value come back to the fishermen is probably the thing I am most pleased with," he said in a phone interview.

Riutta said the power of the Alaska seafood brand has gotten stronger over the years.

"We spent a lot of money on that -- separating Alaska from the pack -- and we've carved out a pretty good niche for salmon and all Alaska seafood products," he said. "The resulting value in the market demonstrates that."

"The industry is putting a lot more time, money and effort in adding more value to products and there is far more respect for frozen products," he added.

Riutta added that the biggest challenge will be holding onto that position in world markets.

"We are the highest-priced commodity on the shelf and we've got a special niche. Fortunately 'Alaska' sells people and they are really excited about it, but holding that position and holding our value is going to be a big challenge. And with the growth of all these certification programs and some of the restrictions that come with those, the ability to hold our market access and keep our name out there will be a challenge to us in coming years," he added.

Riutta said what he has liked least about ASMI job is all the necessary bureaucracy. His favorite part of the job is the people.

"It has been a lot of fun, and there's a lot of really talented and sharp people and a lot of characters," he said with a laugh. "This is really a fun industry to work in. I've just had a ball the last 10 years."

Riutta is quick to credit the state for its strong backing for ASMI, in both funding and support.

"The administration and the Legislature have joined the seafood industry as true partners in marketing our products," he said. "The state is now putting up matching funds that come to almost 50 percent of our core budget, up to $9 million, depending on what the industry brings to the table. That's pretty remarkable, considering it was zero when I first came to town."

In spite of tough competition in world markets, Riutta believes Alaska seafood will continue to have a bright future because "cream rises to the top."

"We have the best fish and the best industry in the world," he said. "Certainly there will be bumps in the road, but as long as we keep focused on producing terrific products and take good care of our fish, we're going to be fine."

The deadline to apply for the Juneau-based ASMI director's job is June 18, and the new boss should be announced in mid-August. Riutta will depart at the end of the year. See the job description at alaskaseafood.org.


Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact msfish@alaska.com.

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