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Alaska fishermen seek solutions as they grapple with the destructive appetites of sea otters

A sea otter munches on a mussel in the Seward small boat harbor on March 6, 2015. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

They may be cute, but the voracious appetites of sea otters continue to cause significant damage to some of Southeast Alaska’s most lucrative fisheries.

How best to curtail those impacts will be the focus of a day long stakeholders meeting set for Nov. 6 in Juneau.

“All of the people who have anything to do with the otters hopefully will all be in the same room at the same time,” said Phil Doherty, co-director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association based in Ketchikan.

A 2011 report by the McDowell Group showed that otter predation on sea cucumbers, clams, urchins, crabs and other shellfish cost the Southeast economy nearly $30 million over 15 years. And their population has skyrocketed since then.

Four hundred otters were reintroduced to Southeast by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from Amchitka Island in the 1960s after nearly being wiped out by fur traders at the turn of that century. The otters, whose population rose to nearly 26,000 in the latest assessment updated in 2014, are under federal protection and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The animals can grow up to 100 pounds and typically eat the equivalent of a quarter of their weight each day.

Last year, at the urging of 20 Southeast towns, organizations and Native groups, the Alaska Senate passed a resolution asking for the state to take over otter management and to provide for more protections.

“If the population continues to go unchecked, predation from sea otters inevitably threatens the future of dive and crab fisheries, jeopardizing hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in economic activity,” Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, wrote in a statement.

One suggested solution has been to allow increased hunting by Alaska Natives, the only people allowed to do so, and lowering the Native blood “eligibility” to one-quarter of a percent. But Doherty said at a growth rate estimated at between 12% and 14% a year, hunting can’t keep up with the population. Another problem is restrictions on what Natives are allowed do with the otters they hunt.

“The Marine Mammal Protection Act clearly states what Alaskan coastal Natives can do with sea otters,” Doherty said. “They have to produce a finished product that is in the tradition of Native art and how they’ve used them over the years. They cannot harvest sea otters and sell just the pelt on the open market.”

Patrick Lemons, Alaska chief of marine mammal management for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said last year that the Marine Mammal Protection Act limits the agency’s response and they cannot intervene to protect commercial fisheries until a species is at “optimum sustainable population.”

The agency recently put the Southeast region’s otter carrying capacity at 77,000, Doherty said.

“Until we’re at that carrying capacity, they will manage the sea otters in a very conservative mode. And once we get to 77,000 otters, we can kiss some of these industries goodbye — and it is not just the dive fisheries. The Dungeness crab fishery here in Southeast is being severely impacted and otters eat king and Tanner crab, so there’s going to be impacts on all of the shellfish fisheries.”

While the upcoming meeting will provide a valuable exchange, Doherty is not optimistic about the outcomes.

“Because the otters are so protected within the Marine Mammal Protection Act, I don’t think anything is going to change the tide of the sea otter population here in Southeast Alaska.”

The daylong Nov. 6 otter meeting will take place at the Andrew P. Kashevaroff Building in Juneau. It is free and open to the public.

Update: The Nov. 6 otter stakeholder meeting in Juneau is open to the public but organizers ask that people register so that they can adequately plan for space. You can register here – or contact Erin Baca, Project Manager for the North Star Group

Pebble hearing in D.C.

Threats posed to the Bristol Bay watershed by the proposed Pebble mine took center stage in Washington, D.C., at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing Oct. 23. Opponents are hopeful the hearing might help put the brakes on the Pebble permitting process.

“If Pebble is developed, there is no doubt it will forever change who I am, who my people are, where I come from. And it will rob our children’s children of their right to continue being Native people as we have for thousands of years in Bristol Bay,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin was at the hearing and reported that Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier, the only witness to support the mine, “tilted back in his chair and looked at the ceiling as Hurley spoke.”

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who has not taken a position on the mine, criticized the witnesses for “not being scientists.”

In a video of the hearing, Young said: “You’re not listening to the science. You are saying a lot of what ifs. Can and cannots. Should we or shouldn’t we. And this committee has a responsibility to review those that are directly involved. Not those that may be affected about it. It’s about science.”

Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., an outspoken Pebble critic, questioned the permitting process. He had especially harsh words about the way in which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is assessing the project, which some have criticized as being rushed and sloppy.

“What I first want is a proper review and a proper comment period, and I don’t believe the Corps is doing either of those things,” he said. “And I’m going to push them very hard to push back, even if Donald Trump is pushing on the other side.”

DeFazio was referring to a pullback of special protections the EPA had placed on the Bristol Bay watershed in 2014. The restrictions were abruptly lifted this year on July 30 after Trump had a brief meeting with Gov. Mike Dunleavy who supports the Pebble project. That EPA pullback has prompted three lawsuits against the EPA by nearly 20 diverse groups.

Last week’s hearing is “typically the first step before an investigation on the permitting process is launched,” said Molly Dischner, communications director for United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

The Pebble Partnership has spent over $2 million on federal lobbying so far this year according to public disclosure forms, Liz Ruskin reported.

A preliminary final environmental impact statement on the project is expected in January.

Fish game-changer

Just as farmed salmon grown in sea cages toppled markets for wild fish a few decades ago, land-based farming is set to change the game again over the next decade.

It will come in the form of recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) and will cause even more disruption to world markets. That is the conclusion of Rabobank, a Netherlands-based leader in food and agriculture financing.

A Rabobank report this month identified more than 50 RAS proposed projects around the world with an estimated output to equal 25% of current salmon production by the year 2030.

That totals roughly 550 million pounds of fish. In comparison, Alaska’s 2018 salmon catch produced 605 million pounds of salmon.

The report said most of the land-based farms are planned in Norway, but proposed production volumes are highest in the U.S. where six farms are planned.

Taking the lead in the U.S. is Maine, where Portland-based company Whole Oceans has received two leases alongside and underneath the Penobscot River. It plans to break ground on a $180 million RAS facility next year and begin output of 11 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually.

The report said RAS could disrupt traditional ocean-based fish farming over the next 10 years, adding that “it’s not a question of if, but of how much.”

Blue opportunity

The Alaska Ocean Cluster, an arm of the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, is seeking a manager for its Blue Pipeline Incubator in Seward.

“This is a blended position made possible through a partnership between the Ocean Cluster, the City of Seward, the Seward Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Development Center,” said Casey Rangel, program manager.

The BPI manager will oversee all operations of the incubator and will act as the liaison to Seward’s ocean-based industries.

Requirements include a bachelor’s degree in business administration or a related field. Salary is $65,000-$75,000+ commensurate with experience. Applications will be accepted until the position is filled. Learn more at