The Sitka Conservation Society sponsored a boat cruise through Sitka Sound and Nakwasina Sound on Sunday afternoon, bring visitors from Florida, Columbia, New York, Ireland and even some native Sitkans around the waterways and salmon habitats of the area. Led by SCS director Andrew Thoms and SCS board member Kitty LaBounty, guests on the Allen Marine Sea Otter Express, enjoyed gorgeous vistas, a bear siting, watching salmon jump and bald eagles soar and just before heading back to Crescent Harbor, a humpback whale gave everyone a close up flick of his tail as it descended to the deep.
But, while aboard the Sea Otter Express, guests also learned the southeast Alaska sea otter story, a tale fraught with controversy that acts as a simple reminder of the importance of any one species to The Tongass National Forest ecosystem.
Sea otters are the smallest marine mammals and are members of the weasel family. They spend almost their entire lives in water, often only going on land to give birth. Sea otters usually stay in groups called rafts of all males or females with their pups. These furry creatures are often seen floating and grooming around kelp beds and the rocky islands of Sitka Sound.
With no natural predators, sea otters have free reign over their territory. They eat shell fish and sea urchins and spend their days playing and grooming their fur. Because they do not have a blubber layer to keep them warm in the ocean, their fur is vital for their survival. Otters have the densest fur of any animal in the world with 300,000 hairs per square inch. And that is what has gotten them into trouble in the past.
During the late 1700′s and early 1800′s Russian fur traders almost completely wiped out the population of sea otters in Alaska. What some researchers believe was a population of 150,000 to 300,000 had been reduced to a mere 2,000 sea otters along the Pacific Northwest Coast by 1911. And it wasn’t just the fur industry thriving. Without the sea otters to eat them, clam and other shell fish populations grew and so did a whole system of fisheries that became very profitable in the region.
As you can tell from the pictures, the sea otters have returned. Hunting restrictions and reintroduction programs have restored the sea otter population along the Alaskan coast. Now, an estimated 12,000 live in Southeast Alaska.
But, the story is not without controversy. Those profitable shell fish fisheries I mentioned are now struggling to compete with the renewed sea otter population. Some argue that those fisheries became profitable in a time when the natural environment had been altered. There is also the topic of kelp to consider. Sea otters also eat sea urchins that kill off bulk kelp populations. The kelp is a great place for fish, particularly herring, to spawn and now with the sea otters back eating sea urchins, the kelp populations can thrive again.
Removing a species from its natural habitat can have profound effects on an ecosystem, as the story of the sea otters has shown. Even without natural predators, the sea otters play an important role in The Tongass National Forest ecosystem and help keep the environment in balance.
Alaska hosted close to 2 million visitors between May 2013 and April 2014, shattering its previous annual visitor record by more than 5,000 people. Not surprisingly, about 1.7 million of those visitors came in the summer months, but last winter did see a 4 percent increase in out-of-state visitation, according to statistics published by the Alaska Department of Commerce.
“Alaska is a worldwide recognized brand,” Dan Kirkwood, outreach director for the Alaska Wilderness League said. When people hear Alaska they think wilderness, adventure, landscapes, hiking and outdoor activities, he explained. “The market demand is for the natural beauty and for this wilderness experience”
Here in Southeast Alaska, where 17 million acres of the region is the Tongass National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service is the most important player in determining how tourists and residents alike use and experience the wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service governs everything from timber sales to hunting to recreation.
Tourists from all over the United States venture to Southeast Alaska to see and experience the beauty and vastness of America’s largest national forest. The U.S. Forest Service provides important and meaningful ways for people to experience the Tongass and one of the most visitor-friendly places is just 12 miles from Juneau at the Mendenhall Glacier visitor’s center.
The U.S. Forest Service built the Mendenhall Glacier visitor’s center in 1961. It is the oldest Fores Service visitor’s center in the country and the most popular in Southeast Alaska today. The glacier has retreated at an alarming rate in recent years. Glaciers retreat when the ice melts at a faster rate than it is replaced every year. While Mendenhall has been retreating since the mid-1700s, it has certainly sped up in recent years. About 50 years ago, the glacier moved about 60 feet every year. In 2011, the glacier retreated 437 feet!
Despite how far back the glacier has moved since the visitor’s center was built, the U.S. Forest Service has created a very visitor-friendly experience for people with varying degrees of outdoor experience. Even closer and more astonishing views of the glacier are just a short walk up the path from the visitor’s center to Nugget Falls. This short trail one of the most popular in Juneau.
While the Mendenhall is retreating, it is far from disappearing and he number of visitors to the glacier is continually increasing. Statistics provided by the Alaska Wilderness League show that in 2011 tourism contributed $1 billion and provided more than 10,000 jobs in Southeast Alaska. And the most popular city to visit in the Southeast is Juneau.
Recent budget cuts to the recreation programs and the current management strategy of the U.S. Forest Service have made it very difficult for the agency to adjust to the growing demand of visitors in the area. As tourism easily becomes the second most important industry for the Southeast Alaskan economy, behind sport and commercial fishing, the U.S. Forest Service is in the unique position to greatly impact how much this industry grows and contributes to the welfare of the region.
Many tourists traveling through the Tongass do not know much about the nation’s largest national forest before they arrive. But, through programs, films, exhibits, pamphlets, guides and talks provided by the U.S. Forest Service, visitors learn more and more about a forest that they can call their own. After spending even just a short time there, they all agree it is beautiful and unlike any other forest they have ever seen. Continue reading to meet some travelers from all over America and see what had to say about their trip to the Southeast.
“We have never seen anything like this! We don’t have this in New York,” the couple said of their first trip to Alaska. Despite the pricey airfare, they both said they would come back. ”It’s like being in Paradise!”
Mary is a former travel agent and has been to Alaska four times. ”I just love Alaska,” she said. ”It’s God’s country!” Mary and Collette came in on a cruise to Juneau and spent their morning exploring the Mendenhall visitor’s center.
Meet Mike and Debbie from Oregon!
“I’m burnt out on the boat,” Mike said of his cruise experience. ”I like being out.” Mike and Debbie did not know much about the Tongass before they took a cruise to Alaska from Seattle, but they were enjoying what feels like countless views of glaciers and waterfalls.
“This place is HUGE with all capital letters!” Lynnette said of the Tongass. They have really enjoyed their trip to Alaska and are looking forward to the rest of their travels.
Meet Lynn and George from Florida!
Lynn and George have been to Alaska three times. This time, they decided to travel more of the land and less of the sea and opted for independent travel, rather than a cruise ship. They returned to Mendenhall Glacier to stay up to date and aware on the effects of climate change on the region they said.
Meet Peggy from Texas!
Peggy came in to Juneau on a cruise ship. It’s her first time in Alaska and she described the Tongass as a “beautiful and huge ecosystem” unlike any she had ever seen before.
These are just a few faces of the thousands of visitors that venture to the Mendenhall Glacier this summer and there will be thousands more that will visit this public and pristine wilderness before the season is out.
There were XTRATUFS everywhere! Though, a few souls did venture into the tide pools without them. On a foggy and misty Sunday morning, some brave adventurers, sponsored by the Sitka Conservation Society, ventured to Kruzof to learn about intertidal species. The shore was spotted with sea stars and there was quite a bit to learn about this wilderness that presents itself just a few hours every day.
Did you know there are 2,000 species of sea stars?
Not all live here in Southeast Alaska, but this region has the highest amount of diversity of these species.
Sea stars – sometimes referred to as starfish – are not actually fish. They do not have gills, fins, or scales. They pump nutrients through their body with salt water because they do not have blood. They have at least 5 legs, but some have as many as 40!
This is a sunflower sea star. These guys can be up to 3 feet wide and weigh as much as 60 pounds. They feed on clams and crabs and can move pretty quickly through the water. Well, they are no cheetahs, but they get around.
The biggest predators of sea stars are other sea stars. When sea stars feel threatened, they have the ability to shed one of their legs (which they will regrow later) so that a predator might eat that leg and leave them alone.
We hope you enjoyed learning as much as we did!
Denise and Maureen have been friends for 15 years. They both participate in the same women’s group in Fort Collins, Colorado and love to travel. In the past, their adventures have taken them to India and Thailand. But, this summer, they set their sights on Alaska and they are already planning their return.
This is Hook. Paul named this humpback four years ago when he first saw it because of the hooked nature of its dorsal fin. The whale, Paul estimates, is more than 40 feet long and weighs about 35 tons. Captain Hook is actually an adult female whale.
But, the wildlife tour didn’t end there. Denise and Maureen had already seen grizzlies near Mt. McKinley on their driving tour up north, but they were pretty excited to come across this guy near Redoubt Bay as the salmon were coming in.
Tommy Joseph is a Tlingit master carver in Sitka. He teaches and carves what he is commissioned to do and what he feels inspired to create.
His apprentice, Kristina Cranston, says of him: “I think (Tommy) could recall probably where each tree came for probably if not most, all of his jobs. This tree came from this, and the other half of it went to this job. And so it becomes personal. It’s like when you go into a grocery store and you see all these fruits and vegetables, you’re really just getting the final product. You don’t know where it was planted and who grew it and how it was harvested and cared for and transported. Whereas with his trees he’s usually part of most of the process and knows where it comes from…And I think when you have that experience it’s not a commodity, it’s really the entire process, this whole cycle. And the end result is this beautiful totem pole, and usually somebody really happy.”
Continue reading to see some of Tommy’s work and how it relates to the community!