• Sea otters in Southeast Alaska: subsistence harvest and ecological effects in seagrass communities

      Raymond, Wendel W.; Eckert, Ginny L.; Beaudreau, Anne H.; Galloway, Aaron W.E.; Mueter, Franz J. (2020-08)
      The recovery of sea otters (Enhydra lutris) to Southeast Alaska is a conservation success story, but their increasing population raises questions about sea otter population dynamics and the ecological role of this top-level predator. In Chapter 1, we addressed these questions by investigating patterns and population effects of subsistence sea otter harvest. Subsistence harvest reduced populations at a small scale, with potential to slow or stop population growth, but across Southeast Alaska the population continues to grow, even with an average 3% subsistence harvest rate. In Chapters 2 and 3 we investigated the ecological role of sea otters in seagrass (Zostera marina) communities. When we tested for generality in a sea otter - seagrass trophic cascade across a large spatial scale in Southeast Alaska, we found a positive relationship between sea otters and seagrass. However, we found no evidence of a relationship between crabs and epifauna, suggesting that the ecological mechanisms in Southeast Alaska may differ from other regions. Our comparison of carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes (SI) to assess the role of sea otters on trophic structure and energetic pathways of seagrass beds found little effect of sea otters in overall community trophic niche space, suggesting similar carbon sources and food chain length in seagrass meadows regardless of sea otters. Conversely, the FA profiles of diverse consumer suggest variation in dietary sources with and without sea otters. This result suggests that the trophic cascade may not be the only or primary energetic pathway in Southeast Alaska seagrass communities. In all, our studies have revealed that sea otters in Southeast Alaska are linked to both people and a common Southeast Alaska nearshore habitat, seagrass. These results describe the varied interactions of a recovering top predator and highlight a need to consider these diverse interactions in resource management, conservation, and ecological research.