Alaska Sea Otters Gain Habitat Protection
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today designated 5,855 square miles of nearshore waters along the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea, and Alaska Peninsula as critical habitat for threatened sea otters in southwest Alaska. Today’s action comes under court order resulting from a lawsuit against the Service by the Center for Biological Diversity.
"Critical habitat has a proven record of aiding the recovery of endangered species," said Rebecca Noblin, a staff attorney with the Center in Anchorage. "We are pleased that habitat for threatened Alaska sea otters will finally be protected. With the habitat protections of the Endangered Species Act now extended to sea otters in Alaska, this iconic species has a fighting chance of recovery."
In August 2000, the Center petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service — the Interior Department agency charged with protecting the nation's wildlife — to protect sea otters in southwest Alaska under the Endangered Species Act. Two lawsuits and five years later, in August 2005, sea otters in this region finally received protections provided by the Act, following population declines of up to 90 percent in many areas.
Fewer than 40,000 otters were estimated to exist in southwestern Alaska in 2005, down from more than 100,000 in the 1970s. Declines are most pronounced in the Aleutian Islands, where the population has dropped from more than 70,000 to fewer than 10,000 animals. The exact cause of the decline remains a mystery, but scientists have speculated that increased predation by killer whales may be a factor. Sea otters in the area are also threatened by proposals to open Bristol Bay in the Bering Sea to oil development, along with changes to the ecosystem brought about by global warming and overfishing.
Today's habitat designation includes all nearshore waters in the current range of the southwest Alaska population of the sea otter within 100 meters of mean high tide, waters less than two meters in depth, and kelp forests in waters less than 20 meters deep. In total, the areas making up the critical habitat equate to 5,855 square miles. While today’s designation includes critical areas for the sea otter, it fails to protect deeper waters and areas further from shore that the otter also needs to recover.