A sea otter floats on its back. (Photo courtesy of Theresa Soley/KTOO).

Southeast Alaska’s sea otter population has been growing quickly, and concerns are bubbling up about the impact they have on fisheries. Elected officials in Ketchikan are pushing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to come up with a plan to control otter populations — or turn over management to the state.

John Ryan lives in Hollis, on Prince of Wales Island. He’s seen the island’s population of sea otters soar over the last handful of years, and he’s worried. Residents like Ryan worry the boom will shut down profitable dive fisheries — like sea cucumbers and geoduck.

“The quota has gone down over the years, and it’s hurting people’s livelihoods,” he said. “That money that’s generated from that, it’s going through and it’s raising families and puts food on families’ tables.”

Sea otters have a critical place in the ecosystem. Scientist and University of Alaska Southeast professor Barbara Morgan said otters eat shellfish that would otherwise decimate vital kelp beds — which would be a big blow to the ecosystem. The sea urchin is the main predator for a kelp bed, and they happen to make up a large portion of the sea otter diet.

“Kelp beds are hugely important to the environment that they are in,” Morgan explained. “They provide protection for the coast that they are along. They break the power of waves as they come onshore. So that really limits how much the wave can affect the coast.”

But there wasn’t always a healthy population in Southeast. Russian fur traders overharvested the animals in the 18th century, and years later, wildlife officials started to try and build the population back up. Now, there are thought to be approximately 25,000 animals around the region

Now that otters’ numbers are growing rapidly, Morgan said one specific concern is that established populations on the western outer coast of Southeast Alaska will make their way into the inner channels of the Alexander Archipelago.

“And that would put them into areas that have really active shellfish fisheries, crab, in particular, shrimp, and people don’t want the sea otters to impact harvests of those fisheries and wipe them out,” Morgan explained. “Totally understandable. I’m not sure that we’re an imminent threat, though.”

But Ryan said he wants to get ahead of the issue before it becomes a bigger problem. He shared his concerns in a proposal to the Board of Game, asking the state to devise a plan to manage otter populations.

The board dismissed the proposal out of hand before the meeting began. They said they don’t have jurisdiction. That’s because sea otters are protected under federal law by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act

“It’s not something that’s going to be put into place overnight,” Ryan said. “It’s going to take years. But there needs to be a harvest.”

So Ketchikan’s Borough Assembly highlighted it as a key federal policy issue during a recent lobbying trip to Washington, D.C.

Borough Mayor Rodney Dial says local officials want to see the federal government manage otter populations more aggressively — or turn over management to the state.

“So we’re just asking for a dialogue,” Dial said. “We’re asking for the federal government to be involved in the process, to listen to people on the local level, and hopefully, that we can all work together to, you know, — because everybody loves sea otters. And, you know, we just need to find a way to balance the population so that the sea otter population doesn’t wipe out populations of other creatures.”

As it stands, sea otter populations are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Current protections allow Alaska Native people to harvest sea otters for subsistence food purposes, and use their fur to create goods and sell them in the form of handicrafts. Federal regulations state that an individual has to have at least one-fourth blood quantum to be a qualified hunter, and they must be from a coastal area.

Anyone who is not Alaska Native is federally prohibited from harvesting the animals, or selling or buying their pelts. 

Fishermen have raised concerns over otter populations before — in 2010, then-Congressman Don Young introduced a bill that would roll back some restrictions on the sale of sea otter pelts in response to pressure from fishermen. 

Grant EchoHawk, one of the assembly members who traveled to Washington with Dial, said the goal is simply to find balance, and strike up a conversation.

“What we’re looking for is to make sure that … the pendulum isn’t swinging too quickly in the wrong direction,” EchoHawk said.

EchoHawk said he wanted to make sure that lawmakers had the most up-to-date data on otters in Alaska, since the populations have risen considerably since the species came under federal control. A 2015 University of Alaska Fairbanks study found that  Southeast Alaska’s sea otter populations have grown by 10% to 15% each year.

“Ultimately, we just want to make sure there’s smart decisions being made,” he said.

No matter what happens, Ketchikan’s tribe says that area tribes need to be involved in the decision-making. Tony Gallegos is Ketchikan Indian Community’s cultural resources director.

“Anybody who’s proposing changes in the regulations should be talking about the tribes before they propose regulatory changes,” Gallegos said.

Gallegos said that tribes are best able to manage the sea otter population, as part of their traditional lifestyle.

He said that right now, he doesn’t want to see any changes to the federal law protecting the otter — at least, not until scientists have better data. 

“There needs to be a determination on what a good optimal population size is and then try to maintain the sea otter population at that level,” he said. “And that’s probably going to require culling those populations by hunting.” 

Whether any changes are coming, though, is an open question. Officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to say whether they’re exploring options for otter management.

Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the estimated number of sea otters in Southeast Alaska.