Declining sea otter numbers may mean endangered designation

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2003

UNALASKA (AP) A dramatic decline in the region's sea otter population is spurring the federal government to recommend they be added to the endangered species list.

Douglas Burn, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was in Unalaska on Tuesday to discuss the potential listing. He said a recommendation will probably be made in the next few months to make the region's sea otters an endangered species. A final decision on the designation would be made a year later.

While sea otter populations have increased or remained steady in other parts of Alaska, they have plummeted in the Aleutians, Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island since the 1980s.

Based on federal counts that began in 1986, sea otter numbers have dipped in the region by at least 55 percent, and possibly by as much as 67 percent. Their population has dropped from a high of as much as 125,000 to about 41,000 sea otters today.

That's a pretty dramatic population decline in a short amount of time,'' Burn said. It's also surprising, because Southwest Alaska is where most of the world's population of sea otters has been.''

Burn stressed that more research needs to be done to examine the reason for the decline, but scientists suspect killer whales as a prime cause.

A common theory links the dip in Steller sea lion and harbor seal numbers to the sea otter decline. Since there are fewer sea lions for killer whales to pursue, some scientists believe that they have shifted their attention to otters. Based on the nutritional needs of a killer whale, Burn said a very small number could be responsible for devastating the sea otter population.

Burn said one theory suggests the cycle may have begun with large-scale Japanese whaling after World War II. Great whales were once a key source of the killer whale diet. Their disappearance may have led to a shift toward sea lions, and eventually, sea otters.

Other possibilities, such as disease, starvation, and effects of commercial fishing, seem to be less likely candidates. Burn said that there would be dead animals on the beaches if disease or starvation were the culprit, and that sea otters and commercial fishermen generally don't target the same food sources.

As an endangered species, Burn said a recovery team'' would study the animals' decline and devise a plan to bring the sea otter population back to a healthy level.

That possibility sent up red flags with some city officials. Efforts to protect Steller sea lions have resulted in significant restrictions for commercial fishermen.

Many of our experiences with the Endangered Species Act out here have been frightening, at best,'' said Unalaska city councilman Gregg Hanson.

But Burn said the plights of the Steller sea lion and sea otters shouldn't be lumped together. Unlike sea lions, the sea otter population typically lives along the shoreline and targets different species than fishing boats. He doubts there will be similar restrictions put in place.

Burn said the earliest that sea otters will be classified as an endangered species is the spring of 2004. A yearlong public comment period will begin once sea otters are formally recommended as a candidate for the endangered species list.

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