Good and Bad News Accompany 11th Annual Sea Otter Awareness Week

Good and Bad News Accompany 11th Annual Sea Otter Awareness Week

As we make our way to the 11th annual Sea Otter Awareness Week and the various events and activities set up around the country and internationally, we reflect on the positive events in the realm of sea otter recovery and protection and what is troubling.

On September 12, 2013, the U.S. Geological Survey released the Spring 2013 California sea otter census.  The news is encouraging and gives us some hope about the future recovery of this population.  The 3-year average (population index) is listed as 2,941 sea otters.  This is an increase in the average from last year. This is great news,  however we

are cautiously optimistic about this increase. There is still much work to be done.

We’re still struggling to understand how disease, shark attacks, food limitations and other threats have kept this charismatic marine mammal on the brink over the last three and a half decades.

One of the sea otter’s major threats is a coalition of fishing groups. This coalition, represented by Pacific Legal Foundation, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which aims to uphold the decades old No-Otter Zone. Their lawsuit challenges the elimination of the No-Otter Zone that was finalized in January of this year by the Service. It’s no surprise, the No-Otter Zone is an impediment to sea otter recovery, as sea otters need to be able to expand their range southward to thrive and sustain a healthy population.  The lawsuit will turn back the clock on sea otter recovery in California. Friends of the Sea Otter, along with Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States, and Defenders of Wildlife, all being represented by EarthJustice, has filed a motion to intervene on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking to defend the Service’s decision to end the No-Otter Zone.

Along with defending the No Otter Zone here in California,  Friends of the Sea Otter has another battle up north. The state of Alaska, its fishing industry, and elected officials are trying to turn back the clock on marine mammal conservation more than 40 years by advocating for the management of sea otters. How are they suggesting they do this? Their answer: by killing sea otters for the sake of small commercial interest groups.

All sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). This makes it illegal to hunt a sea otter or sell any products made from the body of a sea otter, Native Alaskans are permitted to do so, however. In this case, they must sufficiently alter a sea otter pelt into some kind of traditional artifact or handicraft before selling anything made from a sea otter. It is currently illegal for anyone, including Alaskan Natives, to sell unaltered sea otter pelts to non-Alaskan Natives.

FWS has a proposal to clarify some terms under the MMPA and Friends of the Sea Otter is focusing on their clarification of “significantly altered”. The proposed revised definition for “significantly altered” raises some serious concerns.  The definition of “significantly altered” is too broad and at odds with the MMPA and is being conducted without any environmental impact analysis. It isn’t as restrictive as it needs to be and could potentially result in blankets and rugs being made from sea otter pelts without “significantly altering” the pelt as is the intention of the MMPA. This would be devastating for sea otters and increase the market for their pelts.

In addition, this revision of the definition for “significantly altered” is being carried out under the pressure from fishing groups, who believe that the sea otter population in Southeast Alaska is destroying fisheries.  Equal pressure is mounting from state elected officials and the federal Alaska delegation to do something about a “growing” sea otter population.  Open season on sea otters in Southeast Alaska could greatly impact the species and set a disturbing precedent. It would allow an increase in the hunting of a wildlife species in an effort to manage and protect industry, which in this case would be fisheries.

With all of these emerging issues, it is even more important to highlight the need to protect and conserve sea otter populations. Sea Otter Awareness Week once again shines the big spotlight on the need for everyone to understand the plight of this species and help where you can.

Friends of the Sea Otter has been doing our part in sea otter conservation and recovery for 45 years and we need everyone to be a part of this effort to help protect this remarkable species and allow for many future generations to be able to view and know that there is a healthy and thriving population of sea otters wherever they are found worldwide.


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