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Striking a balance

What to do about a problem like sea otters?

That’s the subject of a one-day meeting scheduled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Tuesday in Juneau.

Attendees will include representatives of Southeast Alaska’s dive harvest fisheries and other “stakeholders” affected by the spread of sea otters in the region.

The lively mammals are prodigious consumers of economically important seafood species such as sea cucumbers, Dungeness crab, geoduck clam, sea urchins.

That wasn’t such a big deal when the sea otter numbers were low. Largely removed from the region by the international fur trade that ended in 1911, sea otters have staged a comeback after about 400 sea otters from Amchitka Island in the Aleutian chain were released in six locations on the outer coast of Southeast Alaska during the late 1960s.

By 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated Southeast Alaska’s sea otter population at around 27,700 animals. By 2018, the population estimate had topped 51,000 and appeared to be growing at a rate of more than 12% a year.

By then they’d spread down the outer coast of Prince of Wales Island, and were being reported in inside waters, as well.

Sea otters are a protected species under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. They can be hunted by Alaska Natives, but there are limitations on how they can use and sell sea otter pelts.

A 2018 Senate Joint Resolution sponsored by Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, in part urged Congress to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act and urged federal agencies to allow Alaska Native organizations and Alaska Department of Fish and Game to co-manage, take, and study sea otters; and urged the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to waive some of the provisions of a moratorium on the harvest of sea otters.

Stedman’s sponsor statement for the resolution said that if the sea otter population continued 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.”

The stakes are high for the commercial, subsistence and recreational harvesters who make use of the same species that sea otters enjoy.

Few would argue that sea otters don’t have a place in their historical habitat. But there is a strong desire to strike a balance of sea otter and shellfish populations in the region.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has management responsibility of sea otters, is to be commended for scheduling next Tuesday’s stakeholder meeting in Juneau. At the very least, stakeholders will hear the latest data and have a chance to voice their views. Perhaps those views will be heard at the levels of government able to take appropriate action.