For Immediate Release, October 7, 2009
Contact: Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110
Alaska Sea Otters Gain Habitat Protection
5,855 Square Miles in Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands
Designated as Critical Habitat
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— 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.
The Endangered Species Act requires that critical habitat be designated when a species is listed. In December 2006, the Center filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, D.C., challenging the Bush administration’s refusal to designate such habitat for sea otters, and in April 2007 the Center reached an agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Under the terms of the agreement, critical habitat for the otter had to be finalized by October 2009.
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.
“While today’s habitat designation is an important step in preventing the extinction of sea otters in southwest Alaska, 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,” said Noblin.
Congress has emphasized the importance of critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act by stating that “the ultimate effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act will depend on the designation of critical habitat.” Recent studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering than species without. Despite the importance of habitat protection, the Bush administration vigorously opposed critical habitat designation for most species, designating such habitat only as a result of litigation.
The Interior Department has proposed opening up areas in the Bering Sea near Bristol Bay to offshore oil and gas development, but such development in Bristol Bay would be devastating for sea otters. 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 individuals in this vulnerable sea otter population.
The Endangered Species Act requires all federal agencies – including the Minerals Management Service, which manages offshore oil leasing – to ensure that their activities do not destroy or adversely modify that habitat. The critical habitat designation will be published in tomorrow’s Federal Register.
More information on the sea otter is available on the Center for Biological Diversity’s website at www.biologicaldiversity.org.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with 225,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild lands. Its Alaska office is located in Anchorage.