ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A federal agency on Thursday made sea otters in Alaska's Aleutian Islands candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published notice in the Federal Register designating the Aleutian sea otters as candidates for protection.
The notification could lead to their designation as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. A final decision could take up to two years but would give them a full range of protections, said Richard Hannan who supervises endangered species for U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Anchorage.
''It is throwing up a cautionary light that says this species is in trouble,'' Hannan said.
Wildlife officials became alarmed when comparing aerial surveys conducted in 1992 and 2000 that showed as few as 6,000 sea otters in the Aleutians. Just 20 years ago, there were between 50,000 and 100,000 sea otters living along the long chain of islands that extends southwest into the Bering Sea.
''Something very critical is happening,'' said Angela Doroff, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Given that sea otters live to be about 15 years old, the decline has occurred within one life span, Doroff said.
About 9,000 sea otters living along the Southeast Alaska coastline -- transplants from the Aleutian groups -- do not appear to be in decline, she said. Preliminary data also indicates Russia's sea otter populations are not crashing.
While the cause for the decline of the Aleutian sea otters is not known, scientists suspect killer whales are eating them, perhaps because other food sources, such as Steller sea lions and harbor seals, have dwindled in recent years.
''The population when you chart it, the decline is fairly dramatic. It fits a predation curve,'' Doroff said.
Scientists also will be looking at other possibilities for the decline, including contaminants and infection. However, if those causes were likely scientists would expect to see beaches littered with dead sea otters, which is not the case.
American and Russian fur hunters from the 1700s to the early 1900s pushed sea otters to the brink of extinction until an international treaty was signed in 1911 to protect them. A few isolated populations began to grow, including those in the Aleutians. By the 1980s, scientists estimated the Aleutian sea otter population was between 50,000 and 100,000 -- half of that found worldwide. Sea otters range from Alaska to Baja California, Mexico.
While overhunting historically had everything to do with the sea otters' decline, that's not the case now, said Karen Boylan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage.
Five Native villages in the Aleutians are allowed a subsistence harvest of sea otters, but the combined harvest is only about two a year, she said.
Doroff said making the Aleutian sea otters a candidate for federal protection will increase funding to find out the extent of the decline, what may be causing it and its impact on the region. Already scientists know that sea urchins, a favorite food of sea otters, are increasing and kelp beds, a hiding place for small fish and crabs, are thinning.
''It is important to understand that these are large scale changes that are going on in the Aleutians,'' Boylan said.
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