Sitka Conservation Society
Aug 23 2014

Director Andrew Thoms contributes to Tongass Managment Plan

The Tongass National Forest is the largest in-tact temperate rainforest in the world. Photo by Matthew Jones

Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms is a member of the Tongass Advisory Council, a group of 15 stakeholders from all over the Pacific Northwest, including fishermen, timber salesmen, Alaska Native groups and conservationists.

Thoms traveled to Ketchikan last week for the first of many The Tongass Advisory Committee meetings that will discuss strategies for implementing a new management plan for the Tongass National Forest.  The goal of the new plan is to shift from old growth to young growth timber harvesting.

“This committee is leading the way in figuring out how land and resource management can sustain and benefit communities while also conserving intact ecosystems,” Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society and a member of the committee said.  “It is natural that this is being done in Southeast Alaska because all of us who live here are so connected with the natural environment and the resources it provides.”

The Tongass National Forest, Sitka’s 17 million acre backyard, is the largest in-tact temperate rainforest in the world.  And, the Tongass Advisory Committee wants to make sure it stays that way.  Thoms and other members of the committee still want the forest to be profitable, but in more sustainable and community-focused ways.  The Tongass National Forest is home to 74,000 people.

“I am very impressed that 15 people can come to consensus and put community at the top of the list,” Wayne Brenner, one of the nominated co-chairs of the committee said after the three-day conference. “That is the key that holds Southeast together.”

The old growth that is left in the Tongass only makes up about 4 percent of the forest.  The committee wants the U.S. Forest Service to shift the focus from valuable old-growth timber to renewable resources and industries like salmon fishing and tourism.  Timber harvesting will not completely disappear, but rather the committee wants to encourage a shift to young-growth harvesting.

Forrest Cole, Tongass National Forest supervisor, said the transition to young growth will support a healthy forest ecosystem, while also creating more sustainable southeast communities.

“We are confident this transition will work long term and we are excited that it has already started with Dargon Point, which could become a benchmark for future projects,” Cole said. Other young growth harvesting projects are being planned for Kosciusko Island and Naukati-Greater Staney on Prince of Wales.

“For the past several decades there has been significant conflict with harvesting old growth timber and building roads,” Cole said. “This struggle has damaged the local timber industry and has negatively affected the Southeast Alaska economy.”

Kirk Hardcastle, a committee member, is also a commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska.  He applied for the committee because he wanted to help transition the Tongass Management Plan to one more focused on fishing and renewable energy.

“We have every renewable energy resource in southeast Alaska,” Hardcastle said. “We’re not looking to export as much as apply the technology to our communities.”

In addition to fishing and renewable energy, the committee meetings on August 6 – 8 in Ketchikan also focused on subsistence, tourism and recreation.

Thoms is honored to be a member of this committee and to be a part of implementing a new management plan in the forest.  While the actual transition may be several years away, he is working with the Forest Service to ensure they are taking steps in the right direction.

Aug 22 2014

Invasive tunicate still plaguing Whiting Harbor

As published in the Sitka Daily Sentinel on Wednesday, August 20, 2014

D vex is said to look like marine vomit. This picture was taken in Whiting Harbor after the discovery of the invasive. Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Scientists are searching for a method to eradicate the invasive tunicate species that has kept Whiting Harbor closed since 2010. This invasive sea squirt has been found all over the world and can have detrimental effects on marine ecosystems if not controlled. But killing the invasive, is not so easy.

“Sometimes people have this notion that you can just kill anything,” Ian Davidson, of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, said in a recent interview. “There is not a standard template you can just follow and do.”

Whiting Harbor is the cove between the Northwest end of the airport runway and the causeway linking the islands of the Fort Rouseau State Historical Park. If not for the tunicate contamination, Whiting Harbor would be the preferred access to the state park, which is accessible only by boat.

This September, Davidson and other scientists from the Smithsonian will be testing a possible treatment method for the invasive tunicate to see if they might be able to remove the species from Whiting altogether.

Didemnum vexillum, or D vex, is a fast-growing sea squirt sometimes called marine vomit.  It has been found all over the world and has greatly impacted ecosystems off the coasts of New Zealand and Wales and has been particularly harmful to scallop populations near Massachusetts.  Scientists believe D vex originated in Japan.

“It establishes well over surfaces,” Tammy Davis, invasive species program director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said.  “It’s a really fast grower.”

Fortunately for Sitka and the rest of Southeast Alaska, despite the fast-growing characteristics of D vex, surveyors have not found evidence of the tunicate spreading anywhere else in Alaska.

D vex often attaches to boats and fishing lines and is spread to other areas, so Davis said Whiting Harbor has been closed to all human activity since the discovery of the tunicate to limit the spread of the organism.  As for what brought it to Sitka, no one knows.

“We can’t say what the vector was,” Davis said.

Scientists can’t say just how long it’s been here either.

Marnie Chapman, a professor at University of Alaska Southeast, was on the bioblitz expedition that discovered the tunicate in 2010.

“It’s hard to identify on first look,” Chapman said.  If the scientists hadn’t realized what they had found, “that would have been a nightmare scenario,” she said.

Containing and ultimately eradicating the species is important because “invasive species compromise our sense of place,” she said.  “They take what is special and unique about a particular area and they make it less special.”

But while the tunicate has remained contained in Whiting Harbor, scientists still don’t know how to get rid of it.  Davidson explained part of the research this fall will be testing the effects of increased salt content in the water of the harbor.  A higher salinity of the water may help kill the tunicate, he said, but the scientists need to figure out if they can control the salt content in the harbor long enough to be effective.

Davidson’s team of scientists will return early next year or in the spring for full on experiments in eradication, he said.  This first trip is just testing the methods.

“I want to emphasize that this is not an eradication attempt, but rather a trial to determine how one might go about an eradication effort,” Linda McCann of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center said.  “We face several challenges with the work,” she said including managing the delivery of the treatment and not harming the substrates the tunicate is attached to.

Davidson said that mobile creatures in the harbor will disperse if the salt content gets too high for them during the testing.  He said the scientists were not worried about other invertebrates that may not be able to escape, because they were positive the harbor would repopulate because of Sitka’s healthy intertidal zones.

Getting rid of the D vex tunicate in Whiting Harbor is another important step in the management process.  Davidson said Alaska has less of an invasive problem than many other coastline states, particularly California.

“Alaska has a stronger reason to protect its territory,” Davidson said.  “You can get back to a pristine condition.”

Aug 21 2014

Salmon Stewardship on the Tongass: Twelvemile Creek

The Sitka Conservation Society is not only dedicated to protecting the natural environment of the Tongass National Forest, but also to supporting the health and sustainability of the communities that depend on the forest’s resources. As part of this mission, we partnered with local communities, the Tongass National Forest, and the National Forest Foundation to conduct a habitat restoration monitoring project on Twelvemile Creek on Prince of Wales Island.

This project has three key components; conducting the actual monitoring of fish ecology, engaging local school kids in hands-on activities in the creek, and training aspiring fisheries professionals from nearby communities.

Stream Team is a statewide citizen science initiative that brings students out of the classroom and into their backyard. This summer, students from Hydaburg, Craig and Klawock were able to participate. Corby Weyhmiller, a teacher in the community of Klawock on Prince of Wales Island, was instrumental in involving students in the hands-on activities. This past summer, kids worked alongside fisheries technicians and researchers at Twelvemile Creek. In addition to developing their math and science skills, the students learned about the background and history of forest management, salmon habitat, and restoration efforts on the Tongass National Forest.

Klawock students investigate and identify bugs on Twelvemile Creek.

Cherl Fecko has also been integral to the effort to engage local school students. Fecko is a retired Klawock school teacher and continues to work catalyzing environmental education initiatives on Prince of Wales. She said the hands-on experience is valuable for students in Southeast Alaska. “I think in this world of technology, what we’re really hoping is that kids don’t lose that connection to their outside world,” she said. “I mean, they are still using technology but I think it’s just so important to still get outdoors and connect with their environment.”

Steve McCurdy collects coho smolt for measurements and data collection on the Screwtrap on Twelvemile Creek.

The five species of Pacific salmon that inhabit the rivers and streams of the Tongass fuel the economy of Southeast Alaska and are an essential part this region’s culture. Past logging practices were detrimental to salmon habitats because surrounding trees and even those lying across stream beds were removed. Forest Service biologists and local conservationists later realized the woody debris in and along the rivers and streams had its purpose.  These logs create important habitat for salmon spawning when they are adults and provide cover for young salmon.  They also have important ecological functions that can be hard to predict. For example, the logs that lie across creeks like Twelvemile catch and trap dead salmon that are washed downstream, and help fuel the nutrient and food cycles of the aquatic ecosystem.

Kelly is one of three fish technician interns on Twelvmile Creek. She is learning about fish ecology and management from the field crew.

Over the years, the Sitka Conservation Society, the National Forest Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and our communities have worked in partnership to focus on restoration projects that can return these streams to their original condition. This summer, enthusiastic Stream Team students, high school interns, and teams of scientists were out in the waters, observing the habitats to find out what has worked well in the restoration process and what can be improved. This adaptive management testing, or post-restoration monitoring, is funded by the Forest Service, National Forest Foundation and members of the Sitka Conservation Society.

The work on Twelvemile Creek has helped more than just the returning coho salmon, however. The internship program has given high school students the chance to participate in the research and get on-the-job training and exposure to fisheries research. Upon completion of the internship, students may receive scholarships for the University of Alaska Southeast’s fisheries technician program.

The Sitka Conservation Society remains committed to not only the health of the fish in Twelvemile Creek, but its future stewards. Conservation Science Director Scott said, “It’s a long-term commitment to taking care of a stream, but this is not just any stream and these are not just any kids. Ideally they’ll end up getting jobs as fisheries biologists and fisheries technicians and natural resource managers.”

Founding by Congress in 1991, the National Forest Foundation works to conserve, restore, and enhance America’s 193-million-acre National Forest System. Through community-based strategies and public-private partnerships, the NFF helps enhance wildlife habitat, revitalizes wildfire-damaged landscapes, restores watersheds, and improves recreational resources for the benefit of all Americans.

The US Forest Service monitors steelhead trout on Twelvemile Creek.


Aug 19 2014

Sitka Kitch holds its first classes in July

Sarah Lewis, UAS Extension, leads the ‘canning the harvest’ class. PHOTO: Amy Gulick

Part of my work here at SCS is my role as a community catalyst with the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP). The SSP focuses on the triple bottom line approach to solving many of the challenges rural communities face in SE Alaska. In keeping with two of the SSP’s key directives, focus on local food and economic development, Sitka Kitch was developed. Sitka Kitch is the community project that was born out of the Sitka Health Summit being led by Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) and a devoted committee of local volunteers. The goal is to tap into local food resources, provide education and foster the development of new jobs and industries. This will fill a missing niche in Sitka and the region, training students to fill existing jobs in industries related to our region’s tourism and food based industry.

Sitka Kitch will also provide emergency preparedness and home economic based classes to increase food security at the household level. Programming and outreach will encourage community wide collaboration to address food-based issues while simultaneously improving economic development. The long term project goal is the development of a sustainable food system for Sitka through empowerment and education. Expected outcomes include an increase in local food production, small business development, and improved household-level food security and local food consumption.

Salmon being prepped for pressure canning. PHOTO: Amy Gulick

This will ideally be achieved through the establishment of a shared-use commercial kitchen. Sitka Kitch does not have a permanent facility yet but is currently partnering with the First Presbyterian Church to provide limited access. The Sitka Kitch Committee prepared a proposal to the Church’s national organization and received a $13,000 grant to upgrade the facility for commercial use and we hope to start working with small businesses in the fall. “Sitka Kitch” also offered three classes in July (exceeding one of our goals for the 2014 health summit!). We were able to bring in Sarah Lewis from the UAS Cooperative Extension office to run the classes. Class themes revolved around the primary objectives of Sitka Kitch – cottage food industry development and maximizing household level food security through preservation of food. We had the added bonus of welcoming Amy Gulick to class (Salmon in the Trees) who was on hand to photograph people interacting with salmon! The courses were held at our partner facility, the FIrst Presbyterian Church of Sitka and at Sitka High School.

Pretty maids in a row, pickled veggies fresh from their baths

Overall class metrics:
Total student hours: 136
Total students/participants among classes: 34
Individual participants: 25 ( a few students took multiple classes)

Cottage Food Industry: 8 in attendance, 7 female, 1 male.
Class focus was on cottage food industry (rules and guidelines for what you can sell, how it must be prepared)
Kitch goal: educate locals on small, local food based business to encourage product development for farmers market and other ‘booth’ vending type events.
Class cost was $20 per participant, 3 hours

Canning the harvest: 17 in attendance, 13 female, 4 male.
Class focused on handling and processing of meat, fish and vegetables for canning preservation.
Kitch goal: educate community members about proper canning techniques and how to maximize preservation of subsistence and other harvests, as well as store bought or bulk purchased produce. This was partly in response to the community food assessment information that found 90% of food preservation methods in Sitka was reported as freezing.
Class cost was $20 per participant, 5 hours

Jams and Jellies: 9 in attendance, all female Class focused on multiple recipes for preparing jams, jellies, catsups. Kitch goal: a fun twist on conventional canning, creative ways to produce and preserve local berries and food products
Class cost was $20 per participant, 3 hours

Aug 14 2014

Fish to Schools Recipe Challenge

Do you think you can make a fish recipe that is kid friendly, baked, low in fat, and low in sodium? Eight people were up to the challenge and participated in Sitka Conservation Society’s community recipe contest for Fish to Schools. The Sitka School District is already serving many delicious local fish entrees like rockfish tacos, teriyaki salmon, and fish & chips, but we wanted to diversify the menu and hear from you.

Families submitted recipes—one was created by an 8 year old!—and a panel of judges were ready with forks to judge the fish dishes on taste, kid-friendliness, ease of preparation, and nutrition. The judges spanned the stream to plate spectrum from seafood processor to student consumer.

The top three dishes were salmon patties, coconut pecan rockfish with blueberry dipping sauce, and salmon mac ‘n cheese. The other contenders: sesame-veggie salmon cakes with tangy apple slaw, salmon pinwheels, salmon fish fingers, salmon with dill, and salmon wraps. My mouth is salivating.

You be the judge and test the recipes out at home (and keep an eye out for them on the lunch tray). If you have a recipe that you would like to share, please submit it to We’d love to share it with food service and hope they’ll give it a try.

Thank you to our fine chefs:
Kathy Hope Erikson: Salmon Patties
Mike and Ava Newel (age 8): Coconut Pecan Rockfish with Blueberry Dipping Sauce
Zoe Trafton (age 8): Salmon Mac ’n Cheese
Beth Short-Rhoads and Kat Rhoads (age 6): Sesame-Veggie Salmon Cakes with Tangy Apple Slaw
Judi Ozment: Salmon Pinwheels
Anna Bisaro: Salmon Fish Fingers
Matt Jones, Salmon with Dill
Charles Bingham: Salmon Veggie Wraps

And our panel of judges:
Cassee Olin, Sitka School District
Lon Garrison, Sitka School Board
Zak Rioux, Student
Zoe Trafton, Student
Tim Ryan, Sitka Sound Seafoods
Kathy Warm
Caroline Lester
Matt Meizlish

Aug 11 2014

Living with the Land: Seaweed Harvest

“Living with the land” means having knowledge and familiarity with the natural environment that surrounds you.  Part of that knowledge is knowing what are the edible plants in the environment and when they are ready for harvest.  On the outer coast of Alaska in the Tongass National Forest, that also means knowing what seaweeds are edible.  Knowing Seaweeds means knowing when they are in best conditions for harvest, how they are processed, and what they can be used for.

Although there are great books on identifying plants and seaweeds and recipes for preparing, sometimes the best information (and most locally pertinent), comes from spending time with elders and listening to what they have learned over their lifetimes.

In this video, SCS staff Scott Harris, Tracy Gagnon, and Adam Andis spent a morning with long-time SCS board member Bob Ellis and absorbed some of his wisdom about seaweeds in the intertidal zones of the Sitka Sound.


Aug 04 2014

Sitka Seafood Festival Celebrates Salmon in the Tongass

The fish head throwing competition was just one of the many games and competitions at the Sitka Seafood Festival on Saturday, August 5.

The last marathoner in the Sitka Cross Trail Classic ran confidently across the finish line as the Sitka Seafood Festival parade started to get underway on Saturday.  Floats spewing bubbles and candy made their way down Lincoln Street towards the Sheldon Jackson campus just before noon on August 5 as just one part of a weekend-long celebration of successful wild fisheries in the Tongass National Forest.

Floats traveled down Lincoln Street on a sunny and clear Saturday morning, just before the marketplace opened at the fourth annual Sitka Seafood Festival.

“It’s a celebration of how lucky we are,” Cherie Creek, a regular volunteer at the festival, said.  “We are a seaport and have tons of fisheries and fresh food.”

On Aug. 1 and 2, the community gathered for the fourth annual Sitka Seafood Festival.  The festival included a marathon, kids’ races, cooking demonstrations, food booths, festival games, a fish head toss and the parade.

While it is a community event, Creek said she enjoys having people from out of town join in the festival activities.  Her favorite event of the festival is the children’s crab races.

Food booths like this one, which served King salmon and crab legs, filled the marketplace. Hundreds filed into the marketplace after the parade to try different seafood treats.

The Sitka Seafood Festival is a great way to “show off to visitors how important seafood is to the Sitka community,” Lon Garrison, president of the Sitka School Board said.  He said he enjoys celebrating the well-managed and sustainable resource of the Tongass every year.

Garrison also participated in a new event at the festival this year: the Fish to Schools recipe contest.  He helped judge 8 different recipes provided by locals to find the new recipe to be used in local schools this fall.  The Fish to Schools program, initiated by the Sitka Conservation Society, brings locally caught fish into school cafeterias twice a month.

At an event new to the Sitka Seafood Festival this year, judges gathered to decide which local, kid-friendly recipe would be a part of the Fish to Schools program this fall. The Fish to Schools program brings locally caught fish to school lunches twice a month in Sitka and is now a state-funded program.

One in ten jobs in Sitka is related to the fishing industry and the Tongass National Forest provides 28 percent of all salmon produced in the state of Alaska, so the festival really does rejoice in local endeavors.  It’s something outsiders can’t help but take notice of.

“Everyone I’ve met has some kind of tie to fishing,” Ali Banks, a visiting Chicago chef said. “It really drives everything.”

Banks teaches in a recreational cooking school in Chicago and uses salmon from Sitka Salmon Shares in her classes.  She said she encourages her students to buy wild rather than farmed fish because there really is a difference in quality. She also writes basic and fun recipes for the Sitka Salmon Shares website, which distributes mostly in the Midwest.

Chicago chef Ali Banks taught a small crowd how to make homemade pesto for seared coho. She said many were surprised by her choice of recipe, but she wanted to bring a creative flair to a dish that people in Sitka eat all the time. In Chicago, eating fresh fish is a novelty, she said, so Chicagoans like to dress up their fish perhaps more than Sitkans would.

Traveling to Sitka for the seafood festival was a real treat for Banks.  She spent a few days in Sitka out on a boat fishing.  “I got the best Alaska has to offer,” she said. “I love knowing where my food comes from.”

Sitka, a community of 9,000, will continue to celebrate the success of the wild fisheries in the Tongass National Forest all summer long.

Aug 04 2014

Final Summer Boat Cruise

Join the Sitka Conservation Society on their last boat cruise of the season!  

On Tuesday, Aug. 19, SCS will set sail with Allen Marine tours to explore the salmon of Sitka Sound.  Lon Garrison, aquaculture director at the Sitka Sound Science Center will be on board as a guide and to answer questions.  Come learn about the importance of salmon to the Tongass National Forest and have some fun on a Tuesday night!

Tickets are on sale at Old Harbor Books beginning Aug. 5.  The cost is $40 per person.

The boat cruise will depart Crescent Harbor at 5 p.m. and return at 8 p.m., boarding begins at 4:45 p.m.

Don’t miss the last chance to take a SCS cruise this summer! 


Jul 29 2014

Group Working to Save Yellow Cedar

As published in the Daily Sitka Sentinel on July 16, 2014

Local carver, Tommy Joseph, stands next to some of his yellow cedar carvings.

Four environmental groups have filed a petition to make the Alaskan yellow-cedar, an important tree to Tlingit carvers, an endangered species.

However, some petitioners believe that the protection might not be enough to save the species.

“It’s almost like we’re too late with the petition, but hopefully not,” said Kiersten Lippmann of Anchorage, who is with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center, along with the Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community, Greenpeace and The Boat Company, an organization that runs charter tours through Southeast waters, submitted a petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service last month asking for federal protection of yellow-cedar under the Endangered Species Act.

“They are on the downward swing, very dramatically, so something needs to be done,” said Larry Edwards, of Sitka, an Alaska Forest Campaigner of Greenpeace.  “We’ll do whatever we can to help the process along.”

Yellow-cedars have been dying off for about 100 years, U.S. Forest Service research finds. There is now more than half-million acres of dead cedar forests. The preliminary conclusion is that climate change is the cause.

The research has shown that decreasing snowfall in the region is allowing the shallow roots of the trees to freeze, causing the trees to die.  Snow acts like a blanket and insulates the soil beneath, and also provides more water for the trees in the springtime when it melts.

Yellow-cedar trees can live to be more than 800 years old and are naturally very resistant to rot and disease.  These qualities make its wood ideal for use as a building material that will be exposed to water and Southeast Alaska’s rainy climate.

Its soft wood and fine grain make it a favorite wood for Native carvers.

“It’s not just a natural resource, but a cultural resource,” Janet Drake, a park ranger at the Sitka National Historic Park, said.  With no red cedar in the area, the yellow-cedar is a beautiful, local wood for people to use, she said.

Obtaining endangered species status for a plant or animal takes more than one and a half years if the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. meets all deadlines for acting on the petition.  Unfortunately, Lippmann said, usually those deadlines are not met on time.

And on top of that, the federal protection cannot stop the effects from climate change.  It would only live trees from being cut down.

At present the Aleutian holly fern is the only federally protected plant in Alaska, says the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While conservation groups spearhead the petition efforts, some local carvers worry about the classification of yellow-cedar as endangered.  Tlingit carvers Tommy Joseph and Robert Koffman, both of Sitka, voiced concerns about losing access to wood supplies if the petition should succeed.


Joseph said that he likes using yellow-cedar because of its durable qualities.   “It’s softer but it will outlast all the others,” he said.

Koffman, who also works at the Sheldon Jackson Museum, said the tight grain of yellow-cedar allows him to put more detail into his carvings.  He said it would be best if there is a clause allowing subsistence harvest of yellow-cedar in order to protect carvers’ livelihood.

“If it is a disappearing species there should be protections,” Koffman said, but added:  “I think a limited amount of wood should be made available to Native artists.”

Petitioners argue that the real enemy is commercial timber sales, not the amount used for carving.

“If you can at least limit logging, you can give the species a little bit of resilience in the face of climate change,” Lippmann said.


Jul 28 2014

The Southeast Sea Otter Story

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 in Sitka Sound

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.

A mom and pup in Sitka Sound

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.


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