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Environmental group seeks added protection for Alaska sea otters

Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An environmental group filed a petition Tuesday to get increased federal protections for Alaska's dwindling number of sea otters.

The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity wants the state's sea otters to be designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 60 days to respond to the petition.

The group says its actions are prompted by a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey showing that the largest population of sea otters in Alaska has declined by more than 70 percent from 1992 to 2000.

The group wants the agency to immediately review the status of sea otters and list them as depleted under federal law. It also wants the agency to update its conservation plan given the diminished numbers.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the agency to designate any marine mammal as depleted if the numbers have fallen 60 percent, the center said. It estimates that Alaska at one time had between 100,000 and 150,000 sea otters, but now has fewer than 40,000.

''A simple look at the number of otters remaining in Alaska demonstrates that the species qualifies for depleted designation,'' said Brent Plater, attorney for the group.

A depleted designation would require U.S. Fish and Wildlife to come up with a conservation plan with voluntary recommendations to protect the species. Recommendations regarding fisheries, however, can be non-voluntary under the act. The threshold for protection under the MMPA is lower than that required under the Endangered Species Act.

The last conservation plan completed for Alaska sea otters was in 1994.

The agency's Anchorage office said it agrees with the center that sea otters, particularly in the Aleutian Islands, have declined sharply, but said it is doing what it can, including surveying other sea otter populations in Alaska. Those populations also show declines, said Rosa Meehan, chief of marine mammal management. A status report will be ready by the fall.

''We have not been negligent in pursuing this information,'' she said. ''The service is so tied up in litigation ... there is no money to do any listing action. Our hands are tied.''

The group last fall filed notice that it intended to sue the federal government for allegedly moving too slowly to protect Alaska's Aleutian Islands sea otters under the Endangered Species Act. Under that law, sea otters have been found to be a candidate species to be added to the list. Plater said the designation is meaningless.

''It essentially is a delaying practice,'' Plater said. ''They have no protections. It provides no benefits to the species.''

The court action is pending.

Fish and Wildlife has said previously it is swamped by lawsuits from environmental groups. It says the suits are depleting the agency's financial resources and causing delays in adding any more wildlife to the federal endangered species list.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, sea otters in Alaska were hunted to the brink of extinction but rebounded once commercial hunting was banned in 1911. Numbers continued to climb until the mid-1980s but then dramatically declined.

Increased predation by killer whales could be to blame. Killer whales normally prey on larger marine mammals, such as Steller sea lions and harbor seals, but declines in those animals may be forcing the whales to look elsewhere for a meal.

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On the Web: www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcb/species/otter/otter.html.



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