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Sea cucumber harvests high, despite challenges: Meeting in Juneau to discuss sea otter threat
Jacob Fletcher and Tommy Vrabec load and secure 15,000 pounds of salt for brining sea cucumber on Oct. 24 at Trident Seafoods Corporation. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

The ongoing state commercial sea cucumber dive fishery has the second largest harvest limit in the past three decades at 1.9 million pounds. However, smaller-sized cucumbers have been reported and the rise of sea otter predation continues to be a concern.

So far more than 1 million pounds of red sea cucumber has been harvested in Southeast Alaska among 20 different areas since of season opened on Oct. 7, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. One of the most productive areas was the Revilla Channel and Felice Straight Statistical Area 101-23.

Sixty divers harvested nearly 110,000 pounds of sea cucumbers in the area in a single two-day opening, according to Fish and Game Assistant Area Management Biologist Whitney Crittenden.

"Even the last two weeks it was open," said Whitney, "They had restricted time and they were still catching 1,500 pounds per diver."

In total, divers harvested more than 245,000 pounds in the Revilla Channel and Felice Straight area before it closed on Oct. 24.

On Thursday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced two more closures. Clarence Straight in District 2 and Hoonah Sound in District 13 both closed for the season. Clarence Strait tallied about 92,000 pounds of sea cucumbers, and the Hoonah about 91,000 pounds, both surpassing their respective guide harvest limits.

According to the state's management plan, the season goes through March, but most districts will close for the season by mid-November according to Troy Thynes, the area management coordinator for commercial fisheries for Fish and Game in Petersburg.

The overall harvest goal for the 2019-2020 season is significantly above 1.2 million pounds, which is the 30-year harvest average starting from 1986.

Thynes said the harvest guideline is up because of changes in how each area is calculated and increased abundance.

Phil Doherty, co-executive director of Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association, has been involved with the dive fisheries since the '80s.

He said the abundance is up especially on the inside waters and areas that don't have sea otter predation, but the numbers are decreasing where predation is prevalent.

Because of the increase in abundance there are more divers this year, about 210 in total, according to Doherty. This compares to a 30-year average since 1986 of about 195 divers. Doherty said about 65% of them are Alaska residents.

"So I think the divers tend to go to the areas that are probably a little closer to town (Ketchikan) first," said Doherty, "go to areas that have a bigger quota first and that they'll spread out to the areas that are more difficult to get to."

As for the size of the cucumbers, Thynes said he's heard of significantly smaller sea cucumbers harvested in at least one area, but isn't sure yet if it's a trend across the Southeast.

Doherty said sea cucumbers' size might be down a little compared to previous years, but there's a lot of younger ones, which means there's healthy spawning and survival.

"It bodes well for future years," Doherty said.

The prices for sea cucumber are around $4.50 a pound, a little lower than last year, but still a good price, especially with the large quotas this year, according to Doherty.

After being consistently around $2 a pound for a nearly a decade, the price jumped to more than $5 per pound in 2011 and has consistently hovered around $4 per pound or more ever since, according to Fish and Game information.

Doherty said this price jump is because of the increased demand, especially in Asian markets. He noted other sea cucumber fisheries around the world have popped up and then collapsed due to poor management, he said these have also contributed to the price increase.

Another concern for sea cucumber harvests is the rising population of their predator, the sea otter. The sea otter is a federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which was enacted in 1972.

According to Doherty, sea otter predation has been an issue within the dive fisheries on the northern West Coast for around two decades.

Since the early 2000s the number of sea otters has more doubled in Southeast Alaska, according to information from the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent government agency set up by the MMPA. Estimates from 2012 set the sea otter population at 27,500.

Thynes says there have been a number of areas throughout Southeast where there are no longer commercial fisheries because of sea otters.

"We've seen as the sea otters moved into the area, a decline in abundance to a point where there were no longer any sea cucumbers, or geoducks," Thynes said.

For example, Tebenkof Bay, between Sitka and Wrangell used to be an area with a substantially large harvest level in the Southeast, but hasn't been fished in two decades, according to Thynes.

"The sea cucumbers have been, essentially, wiped out from the area," said Thynes.

Thynes said the agency periodically visits areas where commercial fisheries are shut down to see if sea cucumber populations or geoduck populations have recovered, and they haven't recovered.

"And the otter range in Southeast Alaska continues to push outwards," said Doherty, "So we see more and more otters in areas that just a handful of years ago did not have otters."

In Alaska, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages sea otters in accordance with the MMPA

This next Wednesday in Juneau, the Alaska-based North Start Group is facilitating a workshop between the Fish and Wildlife Service and other stakeholders addressing the management of increased otter populations.

Groups to be in attendance include the Southeast Regional Dive Fisheries Association, the Marine Mammal Commission based in Maryland, the Indigenous Peoples Council for Marine Mammals, Sitka Marine Mammal Commission, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Sealaska Corporation and the Sealaska Heritage Institute, to name a few.

Doherty said whether they come together and reach some sort of an idea about how to manage the growth in future years or not, everything goes back to the MMPA, which would take an act of Congress to amend.

Vicki Cornish, a marine ecologist with Marine Mammal Commission, agreed that amending the MMPA is a lengthy process. Cornish said MMPA provides for the hunting of otters by coastal Native populations. The harvesters can't simply sell the pelts on the open market, they must use them for traditional handicrafts such as hats, gloves and boots.

Doherty says, because of this the harvested is limited, he estimates around 1,000 to 1,500 are harvested annually.

"That doesn't even come close to making a dent in the increasing sea otter population," said Doherty.

Cornish said there are provisions within the MMPA for taking more otters if the area reaches its carrying capacity, but she notes that Southeast Alaska hasn't approached that limit yet.