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Sea otter predation on Dungeness crabs in Glacier Bay, Alaska

January 1, 1996

Sea otter (Enhydra lutris) populations are increasing and expanding into areas of Southeast Alaska where Dungeness crabs (Cancer magister) are commercially harvested. Although sea otters are known to feed on Dungeness crabs, their effects upon crab demography have not been quantified. We censused Dungeness crabs in adjacent areas within Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve with and without sea otters in April 1993, 1994, and 1995 to investigate the effects of sea otter predation. Two different crab survey techniques were used. Commercial crab pots with sealed escape rings and baited similarly were soaked for 24 hours to measure CPUE in 0-25 m depths. A minimum of 50 pots was used for each site; 25 additional pots were used in 1994 and 1995 to sample crabs to 95 m depths. Divers censused crabs along belt transects (2 m x 100 m) laid perpendicular to shore from 0 m depth to 18 m; 15 transects were surveyed at each site on each date. Sea otter numbers were estimated from aerial surveys and boat observers. Prey types and feeding rates of sea otters were made from telescopic observations. In Outer Dundas Bay, where 46, 39, and 40 sea otters were present in 1993, 1994, and 1995 respectively, CPUE of Dungeness crabs in pots was 0.04, 0.04, and 0.2 crabs per day, respectively, at depths to 25 m, but was higher (4.0 crabs per day) at deeper depths (95 m). Only two Dungeness crabs were observed in 45 diver transects surveyed during three years in Outer Dundas Bay, however Dungeness crabs were a common prey item (15%) of sea otters. Approximately 16 km N in Inner Dundas Bay, where no sea otters were observed any year, CPUE of Dungeness in pots was 2.7, 1.8, and 2.5 crabs per day for 1993, 1994, and 1995, respectively. Adult crab density estimated from diver transects was 236, 78, and 50 crabs/ha in 1993, 1994, and 1995, respectively. Significantly lower crab densities and CPUE occurred in the site occupied by sea otters. Our data imply that sea otter predation decreases Dungeness crab abundance and may induce movement of crabs to greater depths. A depth refuge for crabs from sea otter predation may vary with local bathymetry.

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