Sea otters stay in the fjords: population appears stable

Posted: Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The sea otter population at the Kenai Fjords National Park appears stable, according to aerial surveys taken in June.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
An otter swims in Kachemak Bay several years ago. A recent study shows the otter population appears stable.

A United States Geological Survey study estimated that 1,322 sea otters live within the park's boundaries. Alaska Biological Science Center zoologist George Esslinger, who headed the survey, said that the total is around 200 fewer than the last go round, three years ago. He believed that the margin of error may have caused the dip.

The $3,680 otter survey is part of the park's near shore ecosystem study. The park took a look at the mammals because they act as a measurement of the environment's overall health.

Esslinger said that otters feed on sea urchins, clams and various shell fish throughout the park's bay area. These species feed on kelp beds, and increased predation on the part of the otters puts less stress on kelp habitats, which causes them to flourish. Fjords Park Natural Resources Manager Fritz Klasner said that salmon and herring shelter in the kelp beds in the bay.

Esslinger said that USGS flew over specific areas of the bay and counted the otters. The numbers were multiplied over the Fjords bay area to estimate their population. The report is undergoing review and will be published in about a month, according to the zoologist.

Although sea otters don't venture too far from their primary living area, Esslinger said that there could be a number of transient species.

"It's not a closed population. They can come and go," he said.

The near-shore study gives resource managers a better idea of recent changes in the ecosystem. The park has little jurisdiction over the water, according to Klasner, but asks boaters to drive carefully they see otters. The mammals have no blubber, according of the federal wildlife service, and must spend at least half the day resting or risk losing insulating fat cells. Human disturbances draw otters attention and can cause them to leave the area for more secluded grounds.

Klasner recommends that boaters yield to otters and minimize the vessel's wake, especially around mother's with nursing pups.

Major Marine Tours Seward manager Eric Bilyou said that half of his customers ask about the otters, and the mammals appear in almost every single captain's log. Most people want to see other things though.

"It's usually glaciers, whales and shorebirds," he said.

Unlike otters in the Aleutian Islands, their counterparts in the Fjords rest on the beach, said Esslinger. The Aleutian otters populations have withered by up to 90 percent in recent history, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The zoologist said that the remaining otters are much more skittish and don't rest in the open.

Fur traders hunted otters to near extinction until the International Fur Seal Treaty of 1911 banned indiscriminate hunting of the species.

Tony Cella can be reached at

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