SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Fish Factor

Project underway to count sea otters throughout Southeast Alaska


June 15, 2010

A project that gets underway next month aims to count sea otters throughout Southeast Alaska, where the animals pose a growing threat to several important fisheries.

The two year collaboration includes three segments, said Sunny Rice, a Sea Grant Marine Advisory agent in Petersburg.

"The population estimate, which will be done by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, a diet study, will be primarily done by the School of Fisheries and Ocean Science and Sea Grant, and an tagging and tracking project funded by the North Pacific Research Board which will be done by all of us together," Rice said.

Sea otters were hunted almost to extinction by Russian fur traders a century ago. Four hundred animals were reintroduced in six locations around the state about 45 years ago; since then the Alaska population has grown to about 75,000 animals. Roughly 11,500 sea otters are estimated throughout Southeast, but that was five years ago. 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 at USFWS in Juneau.

Several lucrative dive fisheries have been closed, due to presumed sea otter predation.

"What we're trying to do is estimate the take of four commercially important species by sea otters - Dungeness crab, geoduck clams, urchins and sea cucumbers," said Zac Hoyt, a diver and research biologist.

"When you're under water in a geoduck bed, it's pretty amazing how efficient otters are at getting these clams that burrow a couple or three feet under the sand. It's literally like a back hoe has been on the bottom."

At a meeting last week in Ketchikan, Phil Doherty, director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fishery Association, said the booming otter population is a big concern.

The sea otters are primary predators of everything we fish for in a number of areas they have completely wiped out the sea urchins and sea cucumber fisheries, and they are starting to make inroads into some of our geoduck areas" he said. "Over the long term, if there isn't some sort of more active management plan for sea otters, I'm not going to say it will be completely wiped out, but it certainly will be scaled back tremendously, Doherty said, adding that the dive fisheries had a value of $8 million at the Southeast docks.

Also worried about increased otter predation are Dungeness crab fishermen.

"It will be nice to verify what we're hearing from crabbers - they'll go into a bay and see evidence of sea otter predation all along the shore, and at the same time, they're not catching any crab in their pots in that same area," said Sunny Rice. "There is just such a lack of information for a fishermen to try and make predictions about holding onto a Dungeness permit for another 15 years. If we can get data that gives them something to go on, we will have done something positive."

Robinson Crusoe

North Pacific fishing groups are leading an ambitious effort to save a South Pacific fishing town named Robinson Crusoe.

The tsunami that followed the massive earthquake in Chile in February devastated the island community, located among the Juan Fernandez archipelago 400 miles off shore. It was here that the sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned in 1704 and lived in solitude for over four years. The sailor inspired Daniel Defoe to write the classic novel Robinson Crusoe in 1719, often considered to be the first novel in English.

Today, Robinson Crusoe Island is home to 700 residents who depend entirely on a small boat, spiny lobster fishery for their sustenance and economy.

"It is the lifeblood of the community. It would cease to exist if the fisheries collapsed," said Peter Hodum with the non-profit Oikonos, which has worked within the community for a decade. "These fisheries are artisanal, and the entire island culture is founded on this traditional lobster fishery."

The tsunami in February washed away every boat and building on Robinson Crusoe, and the spring fishing season was already lost. To help small fleet of wooden skiffs get back on the water, Hodum and a network of Pacific Northwest fishing groups are close to gathering $100,000 in cash and equipment - everything from fish hooks to batteries - to help jump start the fishery by September.

"Ranging from the winches to pull the boats up into the dry dock area each night, to fishing lines and buoys and spare motors and so forth. Once we acquire that equipment and materials we will ship it to Chile, and then out to the islands this summer," Hodum said.

The rapid outpouring of support from the Pacific Northwest has been remarkable, he said, but he's not surprised.

"They see themselves as part of a larger brotherhood, a larger community of people who fish for a living," he said."They recognize that they have the wherewithal to contribute to help rebuild this community. It's very matter of fact."

"We are bound by the sea and our fishing heritage," said Wally Pereyra, Chairman of Arctic Storm Management Group, who lived for a short time on Robinson Crusoe in 1972. While teaching and doing fisheries research at a Chilean university, Pereyra introduced new fishing systems, such as mechanized pot and line haulers, to fishermen at Robinson Crusoe and throughout Chile. Pereyra said the experience reminded him of fishing towns in bush Alaska, especially the Pribilofs.

"I was shocked by how little it would take to make an enormous improvement in the lives of the people in this community," said Jim Stone, a veteran Bering Sea crab fisherman. "You can spend $100,000 on a Bering Sea fishing boat in the blink of an eye, yet that is all it would take to get the entire community back on its feet. The items they need are so easily found all around the shores of the North Pacific. This is our opportunity to make a connection with people we don't know, but who share similar life experiences on the sea."

Deadline to contribute to the Robinson Crusoe Fishing Restoration Project is June 18. Contact Edward Poulsen, 206.992-3260; or donation form(pdf).

Shape shifter

Alaska salmon has shown a big shift in the ways it goes out to market. More wild salmon is being sold as pricier fresh/frozen or fillets, instead of going into cans.

According to ASMI's Seafood Market Information Service, the wholesale value for frozen H&G (headed/gutted) salmon in the last sales quarter was $147 million, up from $128 million for the same time in 2008. Both chum and sockeye showed big value boosts; chums up 9 percent from $1.17 to $1.28 per pound, and frozen sockeye up from $2.52 to $2.74 per pound.

For the priciest product form ­ salmon fillets -- Alaska sockeye showed the most stable growth. Frozen sockeye fillets increased from 4 million to 16 million pounds from 2004 and 2009. Average wholesale price for frozen sockeye fillets increased to $5.23 per pound, marking the first time that product reached the $5/lb benchmark.

"It's exciting to see. There was a stigma a few years ago that fish had to be fresh. We've done a good job of changing that perception," said Ray Riutta, director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

On the other hand, canned salmon as a share of total salmon production declined significantly between 2004 and 2009, from 41 percent to 30 percent. Canned sockeye production has declined steadily for four years, from 32 percent to 26 percent last year. For pinks, about 55% is being canned with the rest being frozen.

This weekly column focusing on Alaska's seafood industry began in 1991, and it now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A spin off - Fish Radio - airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. The goal of both is to make all people aware of the economic and social importance of Alaska's fishing industry to our state, the nation and the world. Happy New Year and thanks for your continued support of fishing news!

Laine can be reached at msfish[AT]


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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

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