Data suggests gill net fishery not harming sea otters

Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2003

KODIAK (AP) -- Preliminary data suggests that one Kodiak Island fishery, the Kodiak Island gillnet fishery, may be off the hook if sea otters are placed on the federal endangered species list next year.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is in the middle of a small boat observer program which ran two years in Cook Inlet. It will begin its second year observing the Kodiak Island gillnet fishery this summer.

''With the observer program we have preliminary data that suggests minimal interaction and no injuries or death to sea otters,'' said Douglas Burns, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fisheries have two potential areas of interaction with sea otters: entanglement and competition for food. Burns said the gill net fishery does not appear to have much impact on sea otters and has caused no injuries or deaths.

Sea otters were hunted to the brink of extinction for the Russian fur trade from the mid 1700s to the late 1800s. When numbers fell to fewer than 2,000, they were provided protection under the International Fur Seal Treaty of 1911, according to the USFWS.

Sea Otter populations rebounded quickly, recolonizing much of their historical range in Alaska. By 1976, research data indicated that between 94,000 and 129,000 sea otters lived in the coastal waters of Southwest Alaska from the tip of Attu to just north of Afognak Island.

But numbers have declined in recent years, particularly in Alaska's southwest region. Research shows that by 2000 the Aleutian sea otter population had declined by 70 percent in eight years.

Studies conducted in 2000 and 2001 show that populations on both the north and south sides of the Alaska Peninsula had also declined, while stocks around Kodiak have dropped by as much as 56 percent since 1989, according to the USFWS.

Burns said that the proposal to list sea otters as endangered is awaiting signatures in Washington, D.C. He said getting a final ruling typically takes about a year.

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