International Marine Mammal Project/Sea Otter Defense Initiative

Otter Despair

Earth Island News

International Marine Mammal Project/Sea Otter Defense Initiative

Despite the valiant efforts of biologists, environmentalists and many dedicated volunteers, sea otter populations from California to Alaska remain in grave danger.

Sea otters once ranged from Japan to the coast of Siberia and from Alaska to the West Coast of the US. Trapped for their prized furs, sea otters were pushed to the brink of extinction before gaining protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972.

The spring 2001 census counted 2,161 southern sea otters off California’s central coast. Although this population is protected under the MMPA, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and is “fully protected” under state law, these otters face continued threats to their survival.

The most serious threat is the risk from oil spills in coastal waters. George W. Bush wants to increase the number of offshore drilling platforms from 20 to 56 in an area that is home to about 10 percent of the surviving southern sea otter population. Another threat comes from gill nets that have entangled and drowned hundreds of sea otters. (Fortunately, these nets are due to be phased out within the year.) In addition, some commercial fishing groups view otters as competitors and are opposed to any plan that gives the sea otters free rein.

Western Alaska’s northern sea otter population has experienced alarming declines since the 1990s. According to a June 2000 USFWS report, the Aleutian otter population “has declined… 95 percent or more throughout much of the Archipelago since the 1980s.” Since 1992, the Aleutian sea otter population has plummeted from 19,157 to 6,000.

Population declines of 90 percent over such a short period are unheard of. The most likely direct cause of the decline is predation by orcas. Historically, orcas have relied on Stellar sea lions as a principal prey species. In recent years, however, orcas have been forced to turn to sea otters for food due to a food chain collapse that may be the result of overfishing or climate change.

The Sea Otter Defense Initiative (SODI), an Earth Island Institute project, is dedicated to reversing the decline of sea otters through grassroots advocacy and legal action. SODI joined forces to oppose a fishing industry lawsuit that called for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to remove sea otters from fishing grounds in southern California. The opposition eventually caused the fishing industry to drop the case. SODI also has petitioned the Secretary of the Interior to list the southwestern stock of the northern sea otter as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

What You Can Do Urge the USFWS [1849 C St., NW, Washington, DC 20240] to abolish the “no otter zone” and expedite the ESA listing of the Aleutian sea otters. Cindy Lowry [] is the Executive Director of SODI].

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