The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wednesday designated 5,855 square miles of nearshore waters along the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea, and Alaska Peninsula as critical habitat for the northern sea otter, Enhydra lutris kenyoni.
The Service does not anticipate that this critical habitat designation will result in any closure of commercial fishing in southwest Alaska because sea otters eat bottom-dwelling creatures of no commercial value and spend most of their time in shallow water close to the shore,
The agency took this action under a 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."
A pair of sea otters in Alaska (Photo © R. Davis, TAMU courtesy IUCN Otter Specialist Group)
The Center first petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect sea otters in southwest Alaska under the Endangered Species Act in August 2000.
Two lawsuits and five years later, sea otters in this region received protections provided by the law, 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 is unknown, 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.
The Endangered Species Act requires that critical habitat be designated when a species is listed. Congress has emphasized the importance of critical habitat, stating that "the ultimate effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act will depend on the designation of critical habitat."
But the Bush-era Fish and Wildlife Service took the attitude that critical habitat designations were a hindrance that did not benefit listed species.
In all critical habitat press releases during the Bush administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote, "In 30 years of implementing the Endangered Species Act, the Service has found that the designation of critical habitat provides little additional protection to most listed species, while preventing the Service from using scarce conservation resources for activities with greater conservation benefits. In almost all cases, recovery of listed species will come through voluntary cooperative partnerships, not regulatory measures such as critical habitat."
Under the Obama administration, the Service has not been using that language.
Recognizing that the Bush administration would designate critical habitat only as a result of litigation, in December 2006 the Center filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, DC, seeking critical habitat for Alaska's sea otters.
In April 2007 the Center reached an agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which provided that critical habitat for the otter had to be finalized by October 2009.
Wednesday'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 otter's critical habitat equate to 5,855 square miles. While the designation includes critical areas for the sea otter, it falls short, the Center says, because it fails to protect deeper waters and areas further from shore that the otter also needs to recover.
The Interior Department has proposed opening up areas in the Bering Sea near Bristol Bay to offshore oil and gas development, but such development would be devastating for sea otters, Noblin warns.
Because they rely on their fur as insulation against the cold, sea otters are extremely vulnerable to oil spills. As many as 1,000 sea otters died from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. More recently, the Selendang Ayu oil spill in the Aleutian Islands in December 2004 killed numerous animals in this vulnerable sea otter population.
"While today's habitat designation is an important step in preventing the extinction of sea otters in southwest Alaska," said Noblin, "we still must do much more to ensure their eventual recovery, including protecting offshore habitat and eliminating the threat of oil development in Bristol Bay."
The worldwide sea otter population was reduced to just a few hundred animals between 1742 and 1911, due to commercial harvest by the Russian and Russian-American fur trade.
Three populations of sea otters exist in Alaska today, but only the southwest Alaska population is listed as threatened. The Service estimates the statewide population at around 70,000 animals.
Worldwide, the authoritative IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists sea otters as Endangered, on a downward trend.
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