Conference looks for solution to sea otter deaths

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2001

CORDOVA (AP) -- Dozens of sea otters found washed up on beaches near Cordova could be dying from eating fish waste discharged into Orca Inlet by seafood processors.

Investigators have found parasite infestations in the digestive tracts of the dead sea otters, perhaps from eating masses of fish bones.

The Copper River Watershed Project in conjunction with the Native Village of Eyak and the city of Cordova put on a daylong conference this month to deal with the problem.

''Everybody acknowledges that there is something going on. Otters are being killed by bone masses or parasites, but nobody knows for sure,'' said Kate Williams, director of environmental programs for the Native Village of Eyak.

Glenn Ujioka of the Eyak Tribal Council said more than 100 sea otters died last winter between Hartney Bay and the cove.

''Nearly all were prime-age animals,'' Ujioka said.

Sea otters have a membrane that encases the stomach when it is punctured. Fewer otters farther from town have the distinctive, dark membrane around the stomach, Ujioka said.

Steve Grabacki of Graystar Pacific Seafoods said annual reports from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game show that processors discharge between 22 million and 30 million pounds of fish waste into the inlet each year.

The waste would be less of a problem if it could be converted into a marketable product, said Scott Smiley of the University of Alaska's Fisheries Industry Technology Center.

Jerry Babbit of the National Marine Fisheries Service described a few techniques for converting the waste to fish meal, possibly even for human consumption in third world markets.

Babbit cited the success of an innovative processing plant in Kodiak and recommended starting with small-scale experiments to determine what products might work for Cordova processors.

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