Tuesday, June 07, 2005

ENV: Declining Sea Otters

Group sues to protect Alaska sea otters

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) -- Environmentalists have sued the U.S. Interior Department for taking too long to put Alaska sea otters on the threatened species list.

The Center for Biological Diversity brought the lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court in San Francisco to speed the process to put the otters on a list of "threatened" species, Brent Plater, an attorney for the group, said late on Friday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally proposed a "threatened" listing for the sea otters more than a year ago, but the Bush administration has yet to act on the listing, Plater said.

"They won't do it unless we go to court and get the threat of a contempt-of-court motion before their eyes," he said.

There are about 5,000 western Alaska sea otters left after the population dwindled by 70 percent between 1992 and 2000, according to federal officials. In some Aleutian Island sites, populations are just 5 percent of their 1980s levels, according to government officials.

Russian and American fur traders had hunted northern sea otters to near-extinction by the early 20th century. But after an international treaty in 1911 banned commercial hunting, the Alaska population rebounded. By the 1980s, the western Alaska population was over 100,000 according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage admitted that the listing has taken a long time and said the process was complicated by data-gathering and by the need to adjust regulations to meet an exemption in the Endangered Species Act that allows for limited export of Alaska Native arts and crafts, said Karen Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Scientists have offered several theories to explain the recent decline in sea otter numbers.
One blames predation by killer whales, which according to the theory have run out of their normal prey, including the endangered Steller sea lion. Another theory blames a warming climate.

Some scientists say a combination of ecological changes has harmed the sea otters.


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