Otters and their impacts on Southeast Alaska shellfish was a hot topic  at this week’s Board of Fish meeting in Sitka.

Crabbers and dive fishermen again asked for changes to regulations to protect their livelihoods from the voracious appetites of growing numbers of otters throughout the region.

“Sea otters are really causing havoc. They are moving in and moving north and just wiping out the grounds behind them. It is  a definite problem, a major problem.”

Olivia Olsen runs Alaskan Quota and Permits in Petersburg.

About 400 otters were reintroduced to Southeast in the early 1960s after being nearly wiped out by fur traders. Estimates peg the population today at more than 40,000 today.

A 2011 report by the McDowell Group said otter predation has cost the Southeast economy over $28 million in losses to the sea cucumber, geoduck clam, urchin, and Dungeness crab fisheries since 1995.

Kyle Hebert is the dive fisheries research supervisor for the Department of Fish and Game.

He called otters the greatest threat to the future of the dive fisheries and said that fewer areas are now open with declines continuing in southern regions.

 “Although geoduck and sea cucumber areas are still open in this area, the populations are steadily declining and with each survey that we conduct we expect commercial harvest opportunity to drop.”

Nearly 20 Southeast organizations, municipalities and Native groups are on record asking for management changes to the federal sea otter plan so  that it interprets the Marine Mammal Protection Act for an ecological balance of all species, including humans.

Many urge that the State take over  otter management from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  The Ketchikan Borough suggests that more Alaska Natives be allowed to hunt otters. Only about 1,200 are taken annually, which does not keep up with the otter birth rates.

Phil Doherty is director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association –

  “The department I know has to have a sustainable management plan in place and we don’t argue with that but our question is, you don’t have a sustainable management plan in place when you have sea otters.”

The  McDowell report concluded that  large populations of sea otters cannot coexist in the same waters as shellfish species and once   they are gone, they’re not likely to return while sea otters remain.