Sea otter studies in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve: annual report 2002

Annual Report, USGS Alaska Science Center, Alaska
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Since 1995, the number of sea otters in Glacier Bay proper has increased from around 5 to more than 1200. Sea otter distribution is mostly limited to the Lower Bay, south of Sandy Cove, and is not continuous within that area. Concentrations occur in the vicinity of Sita Reef and Boulder Island and between Pt. Carolus and Rush Pt. on the west side of the Bay, although there have been occasional sightings north of Sandy Cove (Figure 1). Large portions of the Bay remain unoccupied by sea otters, but recolonization is occurring rapidly.

Most prey recovered by sea otters in Glacier Bay are ecologically, commercially, or socially important species. In 2002 sea otter diet consisted of 35% clam, 26% mussel, 3% crab, 3.0% snail, 2% starfish, 11% urchins, 2% other, and 20% unidentified. Dominant clam species include the butter clam, Saxidomus gigantea, the Greenland cockle, Serripes groenlandicus, and the littleneck clam, Protothaca staminea. Urchins are primarily green urchins, Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, and the mussel is Modiolus modiolus. Crabs observed in 2002 include the Dungeness, Cancer magister, the kelp crab Pugettia gracilis, and the helmet crab, Telmessus cherigonus. Although we characterize diet at broad geographic scales, we have previously found diet to vary between sites separated by as little as several hundred meters. Dietary variation among and within sites can reflect differences in prey availability as well as individual specialization.

We estimated species composition, density, biomass, and sizes of subtidal clams, urchins, and mussels at 13 sites in Glacier Bay and 5 sites in nearby Port Althorp, where sea otters have been present for at least 20 years. All sites were selected based on the presence of abundant clam siphons and the absence of sea otters (Glacier Bay) or abundant shell litter and the presence of sea otters (Port Althorp). Glacier Bay sites were selected to achieve a broad geographic sample of dense subtidal clam beds within Glacier Bay prior to occupation and foraging by sea otters. Port Althorp sites were chosen to achieve a representative sample of subtidal clam beds already under prolonged foraging pressure by sea otters. There was no direct evidence of otter foraging at any of our Glacier Bay sampling sites.

In Glacier Bay, we sampled 15,338 bivalves (average of 1,180/site) representing 14 species of clam, 2 species of mussel, and a single scallop and we sampled 6,917 urchins (average of 513/site). In Port Althorp, we sampled 1,034 bivalves (average of 207/site) representing 14 species of clam. We found only 5 urchins, all S. droebachiensis. Mean densities and biomass of all subtidal clams were significantly greater in Glacier Bay (59.2 and 99/0.25m2 compared to Port Althorp (10.3 and 5.8/0.25m2 (p<0.002 for both).

Our contrasts of subtidal clam populations between Glacier Bay and Port Althorp suggest that clam densities will likely decline by about a factor of six and that clam biomass estimates will decline by more than a factor of ten. Numerically dominant species of clams, P. staminea, S. gigantea, Macoma sp. and Mya sp. were all significantly greater in density and biomass in Glacier Bay, while C. nutalli density was low but significantly higher in Port Althorp. Subtidal clam species diversity was significantly greater in Port Althorp compared to Glacier Bay, although this may simply reflect habitat differences. Sea urchin densities were high in Glacier Bay, while in Port Althorp urchins were virtually absent.

Sea otters are now well established in limited areas of the lower portions of Glacier Bay. It is likely that distribution and numbers of sea otters will continue to increase in Glacier Bay in the near future. Glacier Bay supports large and diverse populations of clams that are largely unexploited by sea otters at present. It is predictable that the density and sizes of clam populations will decline in response to otter predation. This will result in fewer opportunities for human harvest, but will also trigger ecosystem level changes, as prey for other predators, such as octopus, sea stars, fishes, birds and mammals are modified. Sea otters will also modify benthic habitats through excavation of sediments required to extract burrowing infauna such as clams. Effects of sediment disturbance by foraging sea otters are not understood. Glacier Bay also supports large populations of other preferred sea otter prey, such as king (Paralithodes sp.), tanner (Chionoecetes sp.) and dungeness (Cancer magister) crabs and green sea urchins (S. droebachiensis). As the colonization of Park waters by sea otters continues, it is also likely that dramatic changes will occur in the species composition, abundance, and size class distribution of many components of the nearshore marine ecosystem. Many of the changes will occur as a direct result of predation by sea otters. Others will result from indirect or cascading effects of sea otter foraging, such as increased kelp production and modified prey availability for other nearshore predators. Without recognizing and quantifying the extent of change initiated by the colonization of Glacier Bay by sea otters, management of nearshore resources will be severely constrained for many decades.

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Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Report
Title Sea otter studies in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve: annual report 2002
Series title Annual Report, USGS Alaska Science Center, Alaska
Year Published 2003
Language English
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center
Description 82 p.
Country United States
State Alaska
Other Geospatial Glacier Bay
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