|Marine mammals are some of the most iconic species in Southeast Alaska, including sea otters (yáxwch’), sea lions (taan), seals (tsaa) and humpback whales (yáay). Smaller marine mammals provide fur, whiskers, meat and oil for traditional practices, while whales contribute heavily to the tourism industry and ecosystems of the region. Seal oil is highly sought after for k̲oo.éex’ and other social events, while seal skins, sea otter fur and sea lion whiskers are all used in traditional art. Tribal members have already reported changes in the number and behavior of several marine mammals, including the rapid increase in sea otters following their re-introduction post-fur trade and that sea lions have been migrating further into Port Frederick in search of fish.|
CHANGES IN FOOD SUPPLY DUE TO INCREASING ENVIRONMENTAL THREATS IS THE LARGEST ISSUE MOST MARINE MAMMALS WILL FACE DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE.
Since marine mammals are at the top of the food chain, if their food sources, primarily fish, crabs and shellfish, are negatively impacted by global warming and ocean acidification, they face losing their prey. Harbor seals have been getting smaller as food becomes less abundant—the average seal has gotten 6 kg slimmer per year, which reduces the survival rate of individuals. The decline in body condition was most noticeable for pups. In the Aleutians, harbor seal counts dropped by 86 percent between 1980 and 2000, most likely due to a marine heat wave. As waters continue to warm and their prey becomes less abundant, harbor seals will have a hard time hunting enough to sustain themselves. Whales were also decimated by marine heatwaves such as The Blob; the year before the heatwave National Park Service employees counted 163 humpbacks in Glacier Bay, and the year after they only found 45. Abundant food has allowed the population to begin recovering but is still lower than it was before.
MARINE MAMMALS ARE ALSO VULNERABLE TO POLLUTION AND ENTANGLEMENT FROM FISHING VESSELS.
Gillnets, trawls, seins and weirs can all tangle up marine mammals and cause them to drown. Ghost fishing gear, gear that has been abandoned but is still functional, is a leading cause of death for marine mammals. They’re also vulnerable to vessel strikes; of the 108 reported strikes in Alaskan waters between 1978 and 2011, 25 resulted in the death of the whale. With increased fishing and tourism throughout the state and limited enforcement of the regulations on distancing and vessel speed, the number of fatal strikes is likely to increase. They are also vulnerable to side effects from tourism and shipping routes, as their feeding and resting behaviors are often disturbed by marine noise.
SINCE MARINE MAMMALS ARE HIGH UP ON THE FOOD CHAIN, IMPACTS TO THEM CAN ALSO NEGATIVELY IMPACT THEIR ENVIRONMENTS.
Sea otters are critical in protecting kelp, which is not only a food source for people and many other animals but also directly helps reduce the effects of ocean acidification. When there aren’t enough sea otters in a region, sea urchins can breed without interference. That can lead to urchin barrens, where the urchins eat the holdfast of large kelps (the bit they use to hold on to the ocean floor) and transform massive kelp forests into wastelands. Kelp forests in California, where sea otters are barely present, have shrunk by more than 90 percent according to historical records. Threats to whale populations could also reduce the occurrence of whale fall, when deceased whales sink to the ocean floor and provide rare and much needed nutrients to the benthic ecosystem.
1.1: Perform outreach and education on the significance of balanced ecosystems, specifically regarding sea otters’ role in the ecosystem
1.2 Perform outreach and education on human impacts on marine mammals, including ghost fishing, boating near marine mammals, etc. to reduce adverse impacts on marine mammals
1.3 Identify local and regional partners to help address and mitigate climate change impacts on marine mammals’ habitats and food sources
1.4 Identify and apply for funding sources that support the preservation of marine ecosystems and wildlife
2.1: Implement tribal-led assessments to collect data on local and/or regional marine ecosystems (i.e. test OA, dissolved oxygen, kelp bed coverage, etc.) to better understand the condition of local marine mammal habitats / ecosystems
2.2 Perform tribal environmental restoration / monitoring to improve or secure the habitats and/or food sources of marine mammals
2.3 Identify and participate in efforts to better co-manage human-marine wildlife interactions, specifically regarding boater and marine mammals interactions, bycatch policies, ghost fishing, etc. from a tribal perspective
2.4 Develop and implement environmental education plans / programs that increase awareness of marine mammal habitats and ecosystems, food sources, the impacts of climate change, and how to mitigate and/or prevent these impacts
2.5 Establish programs / capacities necessary to participate in advocacy efforts around climate change, just transitions, and maintaining Indigenous rights
2.6 Develop evaluation procedures to understand which approaches are more / less effective at conserving and increasing marine mammal habitats and foods as well as decreasing harmful impacts on marine mammals
2.7 Scout for new potential marine mammal hunting / harvesting grounds after accounting for impacts of climate change
3.2 Have continuous representation and participation in efforts around climate change and Indigenous rights regarding marine mammals and human-marine wildlife relationships
3.3 Evaluate interdisciplinary efforts to understand which have been effective at supporting / increasing the quality of marine mammal habitats and food sources
3.4 Develop a community-wide understanding of the negative impacts of humans on marine mammals and ecosystems and a shared responsibility to minimize adverse impacts of human activities on marine mammals
3.5 Coordinate with Icy Strait Point to minimize negative effects of whale watching tours on marine mammals and their habitats and food sources