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Norton Announces Proposal To List Southwest Alaska Sea Otters As "Threatened" Under Endangered Species Act

February 17, 2004
Tuesday - 12:55 am

Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list sea otters in Southwest Alaska as threatened under the Endangered
Species Act because of a precipitous decline in their population in recent years.

"Almost half the world's sea otters used to live in Southwest Alaska, but we've seen as much as a 68 percent drop in their numbers since the mid-1980s," Norton said. "No one is certain yet what is causing this, but listing this population as threatened under the Endangered Species Act will be an important step in discovering the reasons and reversing the decline."

Specifically, the Service is proposing to list the southwest Alaska Distinct Population Segment of the northern sea otter (Enhydra lutris kenyoni).Under the ESA, "species" is defined broadly to include species, subspecies, and also to include Distinct Population Segments, or DPS, of vertebrate species. A DPS is a portion of a vertebrate species or subspecies that is discrete from the remainder of its taxon and also is significant to that taxon.

The proposed rule describes the southwest Alaska DPS of the northern sea otter as occurring in near shore waters from the Aleutian Islands to Cook Inlet, including waters adjacent to the Aleutians, the Alaska Peninsula, and the Kodiak archipelago. This corresponds to the range of the southwest stock of sea otters recognized in 2002 by the Service in accordance with provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Two other stocks of sea otters in Alaska that also were recognized in 2002, the south-central and southeast stocks, are believed to be stable or increasing and are not included in the proposed rule.

Between the mid 1700s and the early 1900s, commercial hunting of sea otters brought the entire species to the brink of extinction. When they became protected from commercial harvest in 1911 under the International Fur Seal Treaty, only 13 small remnant populations were known to still exist, including six in southwest Alaska. Following this protection, otters from 11 of these populations gradually recovered and re-colonized their former range in southwest Alaska and some other portions of their historic range.

A substantial decline in the southwest Alaska otter population appears to have begun in the mid- to late 1980s. In the Aleutians, there were approximately 55,000 to 74,000 sea otters in the mid-1980s, representing almost half of the world's estimated population of sea otters at that time.

Aerial surveys since that time, however, indicate a progressive decline in the number of otters in the Aleutians, where the current population is estimated to be less than 9,000 animals. Survey results also show substantial declines have occurred in the Alaska Peninsula, where the counts of otters have declined by more than 65 percent since the mid 1980s. In the Kodiak Archipelago, surveys indicate the number of otters has declined more than 55 percent since the late1980s. Overall, the DPS has declined an estimated 56 to 68 percent over the past 10 to 15 years, and recent surveys indicate the decline is continuing.

The cause of the population decline is not clear. Production of young does not appear to be reduced, nor is there evidence that starvation, disease, or contaminants are involved. There also is no evidence that entanglement in commercial fishing gear or competition with fishermen for prey species is playing a significant role in the decline, and annual subsistence harvest by Alaska Natives is believed to be too low to contribute significantly to the decline. Some evidence points to predation by killer whales as a possible cause of the decline in the Aleutian Island chain. However, additional research will be needed before we can confidently identify the cause of the decline.

The ESA defines a "threatened " species as one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. An "endangered" species is defined as being in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

The proposed rule to list the southwest DPS of the otter as threatened does not include a proposal for designating critical habitat. As explained in the proposed rule, critical habitat is not determinable at this time. As part of the request for public comments on the proposal to list the DPS, the Service is seeking information regarding features and specific areas that the Service should consider for a critical habitat proposal, in the event that the listing becomes final. If the Service does propose critical habitat for the DPS in the future, the public would have an opportunity to comment on such a proposal.

If the southwest Alaska DPS of the sea otter is listed as threatened under the ESA, a recovery plan would be developed for it. This plan would bring together efforts by Federal, State, Alaska Native groups, local agencies, and private entities for the conservation of the DPS.

The Proposed Rule regarding the listing was delivered today to the Federal Register. The Service invites the public to submit data, information, and comments on the proposed rule. The Service will accept comments on the proposed rule for 120 days following publication in the Register, and during that time the Service also will hold one or more public hearings where the public can obtain information and offer comments. Requests for public hearings need to be received by the Service within 60 days of publication in the Register. Comments on the proposal can be emailed to



Source of News Release & Photograph:

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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