Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Frozen bay turns otters into easy prey

An extra-cold winter on the Alaska Peninsula has frozen sea otters out of the bay and pushed them onto the tundra near Port Heiden where they're easy prey for wolves, humans and hunger.

Some of the starving animals -- with ribs showing -- have waddled or belly-slid several miles inland, residents said. Others have been attacked by dogs near houses, killed by villagers for their hides, or died on sea ice where eagles and foxes pick at their remains.

No one knows how many have come ashore in the unusual exodus, said Mark Kosbruk, village fire chief. Natives have skinned at least 17 to make hats, gloves and blankets from the luxurious pelts.

They've clubbed some with 2-by-4s or axe handles, shot others and collected a couple of frozen carcasses, he said. Several rotted before they could be gathered or died on the sea ice where people won't travel.

"When it first froze over, they were everywhere," said Kosbruk, 34, who is teaching younger hunters how to skin and salt the hides for tanning.

The sea otters are probably on land looking for water where they might find food, said Douglas Burn, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska sea otter program. They usually scour sea bottoms for clams or sea urchins, but the ice froze them out.

Similar die-offs have been documented before, but biologists are worried and keeping an eye on the situation, he said.

Western Alaska sea otters from the Aleutian Islands to Cook Inlet are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They number 48,000, a drop of more than 50 percent in the last 20 years, the agency estimates.

Some scientists blame increased predation by killer whales and a bacteria that causes heart lesions.

Burn and other biologists have been monitoring the ice in Port Heiden and other shallow bays on the peninsula, reviewing satellite images and other data, he said.

"We're concerned about large concentrations of sea otters that might get trapped and not have a way into the water," he said. "The hard part is, what would we do if we found that? We'd have to ask what are our options."

People can't legally hunt, kill or harass sea otters under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, he said. But the 1972 law allows Alaska Natives to kill them for food or making handicrafts.

Port Heiden, an Alutiiq village of 79 about 400 miles southwest of Anchorage, sits on the northeast edge of the frozen Port Heiden bay.

People in the village don't eat sea otters and rarely hunt them. The number of animals near the village seems to have increased in recent years, Kosbruk said. During summer, the number of sea otters gathering on a low-tide sandbar have grown from 50 to 200.

The animals haven't come ashore in large numbers since 2000, the last time the bay froze, he said.

Partially enclosed by spits of land, the bay hardened into a solid surface of ice this winter after a cold spell -- beginning in January and lasting through March -- dropped temperatures to zero and below, he said.

Average winter temperatures usually hover in the 20s, producing only ice floes, he said. Spring temperatures have recently melted snow off tundra and opened cracks in the frozen bay miles from shore, but the sea otters are still coming on land.

Kosbruk shot one on land Thursday that was about 200 yards from the sea.

Three weeks ago, he watched with binoculars as about 35 gathered in a small sea-ice hole several hundred yards off shore, he said. They took turns diving for food. Eagles fed on about seven carcasses lying around the hole.

Sea otters dive for several minutes at a time, and they're voracious eaters. They rely on their super-dense fur for warmth instead of the blubber that protects other marine mammals. They normally eat the equivalent of 25 percent of their body weight daily.

Die-offs happen where animals live at the edge of their natural range, Burn said. The Port Heiden sea otters live farther north than other Bristol Bay sea otters, and similar freeze-outs have been documented since the early 1970s.

Once forced onto land, their chances of survival fall sharply, he said. They travel awkwardly, pulling with front paws while dragging flipperlike hind feet. They walk with a rolling gate and bound away when startled.

Kosbruk said he feels bad for the starving animals. But he's glad people who have caught them, including his 14-year-old son, are respecting Alutiiq hunting traditions of sharing.

"We don't hunt for ourselves," he said. "We hunt for people who can no longer hunt for themselves, the elders."

Andrew Lind, a 27-year-old commercial fisherman who moved to Port Heiden a few years ago, killed his first sea otter and four others last month. His grandmother told him to bring some otter pelts home so she could make fur hats for children and grandchildren.

Lind followed belly tracks in the snow on his four-wheeler. A couple of sea otters were so exhausted they didn't flee, he said. Others hissed or growled, scurrying away until they tired and he clubbed them.

He's giving all of them away, most to elders. He gave the first to his mother, he said, and the next to his grandmother.

"She was very happy and thankful," he said.

Special Thanks to Anchorage Daily News

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