From: Yereth Rosen, Reuters
Published December 20, 2006 12:00 AM

Lawsuit Seeks Protections for Alaska Sea Otters

ANCHORAGE — A lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses the Bush administration of shirking its duty to protect threatened Alaska sea otters, eschewing environmental safeguards for oil and gas drilling plans.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeking to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate a safe habitat for the sea otters.

The lawsuit was triggered in part by proposed oil and gas development in the federal waters of southwestern Alaska's Bristol Bay, a salmon-rich region and core habitat for the sea otters, said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

"An oil spill (would be) very devastating for them. Their population is so small right now that they really can't handle another impact," Sakashita said.

Even smaller impacts, such as increased vessel traffic, release of drilling wastes and a cacophony of industrial noise, would be dangerous, making it imperative to get habitat protections immediately, according to the lawyer.

Bruce Woods, an Anchorage-based spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service included the North Aleutian Basin, home to Bristol Bay, in its new five-year plan for oil and gas drilling.

The plan proposes to undo Bristol Bay drilling bans established by Congress and President George H.W. Bush after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Prized for their luxurious pelts, Alaska sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction by Russian and American fur traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. An international treaty banned commercial hunting of sea otters in 1911, and populations returned along western Alaska.

Sea otters began to vanish again in the mid- to late-1980s for reasons that remain unclear to biologists. The decline has been most dramatic along the Aleutian Islands chain, where the population now numbers only a few thousand, about a tenth of its mid-1980s size.

Prompted by the Center for Biological Diversity's previous lawsuit, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the western Alaska sea otter population as threatened in August 2005.

Source: Reuters

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