• The effect of sea otter predation and habitat structure on nearshore crab assemblages in Southeast Alaska

      Cates, Rebecca Jeanette; Eckert, Ginny L.; Cunningham, Curry; Siddon, Christopher (2022-05)
      Sea otter Enhydra lutris predation has resulted in conflict with humans for shared marine resources, as sea otters reduce the abundance and size of nearshore crabs. Several species of crab in Southeast Alaska are prey for sea otters including Cancer magister, a highly valued commercial and subsistence species, as well as Cancer gracilis, Cancer productus, and Telmessus cheiragonus, species that are abundant in the nearshore and of ecological and subsistence importance. Understanding the influence of sea otters and habitat structure on valuable crab species is of particular importance in Southeast Alaska as the abundance and range of sea otters expands across important crab nursery habitat. We 1) conducted breakpoint analyses to identify sea otter density thresholds that affect the abundance and biomass of nearshore crab species, 2) used a two-factor type III Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) to test the impact of sea otter presence and year on crab size, and 3) used general linearized models (GLM) to test the impacts of sea otter density and habitat structure on crab species abundance and size distribution. We found evidence of sea otters decreasing crab species' abundance, biomass, and size. C. magister, C. gracilis, and C. productus experienced a significant decline in size in the presence of sea otters, while T. cheiragonus size did not differ as a function of sea otter presence. We found a significant decrease in biomass in C. magister and in biomass and abundance in C. productus, associated with increasing sea otter density. Different responses across crab species are likely attributed to size distributions and sea otter foraging behavior. Habitat characteristics, such as eelgrass biomass and shoot density, had a small influence on crab abundance and size that depended on the species of crab. These results suggest that populations of large crabs do not persist in the presence of sea otters, small crabs may co-occur with sea otters, and eelgrass biomass and density marginally influence crab abundance and size.