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 MarineSea 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.