2011: Year of the Sea Otter

Though 2011 was officially the year of the rabbit (according to the Chinese calendar), we’d like to think “The Year of the Sea Otter” would be just as fitting. This past year, Friends of the Sea Otter has made great gains toward conserving our favorite keystone species and ensuring its future survival and prosperity.

At the beginning of the year FSO partnered with Defenders of Wildlife, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Ocean Public Trust Initiative (a project of the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project) to assess and comment on the Draft Recovery Plan for the Southwest Alaska Distinct Population Segment of the Northern Sea Otter. FSO supports an ecosystem-based approach to reversing the declining trend of the southwest population and recognizes the importance of a solid recovery plan. To that end, we urged the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider all aspects of the Southwest Alaska population’s decline and to reflect on the causes for increased orca predation on sea otters.

FSO began the Yampah Island Project, a partnership with the Elkhorn Slough Foundation and the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve to monitor the unique sea otter behavior within the inland waters of the slough for research, education, and outreach efforts. The Project includes the construction of two remote-controlled cameras mounted on self-sustaining monitoring platforms that will broadcast live video feeds of the otters to the internet and the Elkhorn Slough Visitor Center. These cameras will act as unobtrusive windows into the natural lives of sea otters living in remote areas of the slough that are normally only accessible by boat.

In June and October, FSO hosted meetings with our members in Monterey to explain our current projects and solicit feedback. Those members who attended were not only enthusiastic about the current trajectory of the organization, but also very willing to help increase FSO’s outreach and education capacity. Many are now active volunteers for Friends of the Sea Otter who engage the community on behalf of FSO and continue to work for the recovery of the species.

During the summer FSO began a grassroots campaign to end the No-Otter Zone off the coast of Southern California in response to the release of a revised draft supplement to the environmental impact statement (DSEIS) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). In the DSEIS, FWS proposed ending the No-Otter Zone and leaving those otters currently living within the zone untouched. Thousands of our members supported the proposed decision by writing letters to FWS and attending public hearings, vastly outnumbering those few fishing interests that oppose the recovery of the species.

In September the State of California officially announced that the Sea Otter Fund would appear on the 2011 California State Income Tax form. The Fund is an important financial source for researchers working at the California Department of Fish and Game and the California Coastal Conservancy who perform studies on the southern sea otter. The Fund is supported solely through voluntary contributions of tax refunds by checking the appropriate box on California State Income Tax forms. This was an important victory – over $330,000 was raised in 2011 alone.

Sea Otter Awareness Week was held between September 25 and October 1, 2011. FSO partnered with Monterey Bay Kayaks to offer members discounts on kayak rentals to view sea otters in their natural habitat in Monterey Bay and the Elkhorn Slough. We also participated in “Otter Days” at the Monterey Bay Aquarium by engaging aquarium visitors and discussing sea otter issues and ways the general public can help ensure the recovery of the species.

In November, FSO began its campaign to block H.R. 2714, a bill that would legalize a new fur trade based on the harvesting of Alaska’s sea otters. The bill would legalize the sale of unaltered sea otter pelts to non-natives and further incentivize sea otter harvests, possibly undoing all the progress sea otters have made in Alaska. We are seeking members and the general public to write to their legislators and oppose the bill when it comes to a vote in the House of Representatives.

Throughout the winter, FSO engaged the public at numerous events ranging from the premier of Otter 501 (a documentary by Sea Studios that focuses on a rehabilitated otter pup from the Monterey Bay Aquarium) to a fundraising gala held by Spector Dance to promote their new performance titled Ocean and a Community Day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. By maintaining a constant presence in the community, we hope to inspire our fellow neighbors to do their part for the sea otter.

 2011: Year of the Sea Otter

MBA Community Day, Image Courtesy of Mike Baronial, FSO Member

Finally, near the end of the year, FSO began to reach out to sea otter researchers and organizations to connect our volunteers with opportunities to spot and observe sea otters in the wild while making meaningful contributions to current sea otter research and census efforts. This would add to the important efforts of FSO volunteers that are already actively working with the California Department of Health in collecting water samples in sea otter habitat to analyze for biotoxins. Details on what this otter spotting volunteer program will entail will come in early 2012.

As you can see, this past year has been an active year for FSO, our members, and sea otters. Looking forward, we can expect another vigorous year in 2012. The Yampah Island Project is only just getting started and we look forward to having our first look through the remote monitoring stations by the end of next year. We also look forward to continuing our work with stakeholders and partners to ensure the Fish and Wildlife Service ends the No-Otter Zone without harming sea otters at San Nicolas Island. Our campaign against the bill that would legalize a new fur trade in Alaska has only just begun, and we expect to hit the ground running with a new Otter Spotting volunteer program in the Monterey Area early next year.

To that end, we cannot continue our vital work without your support. FSO relies heavily upon the generosity of our members as we work to ensure the survival and recovery of all sea otters. Please consider making a contribution today that will go toward our current and future projects and programs and help us save the sea otter.

 2011: Year of the Sea Otter

Alaskan Bill Threatens to Introduce New Fur Trade

On July 30th, 2011 Representative Don Young (R. – Alaska) introduced H.R. 2714, a bill that threatens to reauthorize the sea otter fur trade for segments of the Alaskan sea otter range. Though cleverly authored as if the bill were aimed at improving the native people’s ability to practice their cultural traditions, Mr. Young’s public comments and actions have revealed the real purpose of the bill: to institute a management plan for Alaskan sea otters on behalf of fishing groups.

The Alaskan Sea Otters

The bill only targets the southcentral and southwest DPS for management (the Alaskan sea otter range is divided into three populations segments (DPS) the southeast, southcentral, and southwest populations). The southwest population is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The southcentral DPS is perhaps the most successful sea otter population at approximately 12,774 otters. However, these sea otters are not without their challenges. In 1989, the Exxon-Valdez oil spill killed nearly 4,000 sea otters. The sea otter population and parts of the nearshore ecosystem are recovering slowly from this disaster.

The Southeast DPS

The southeast DPS is the successful result of a translocation program in the 1960s that established 13 colonies with approximately 9,136 of sea otters, but growth has been unequal within this range. where population numbers have increased significantly in the southern segment and within Glacier Bay National Park in the northern segment only. Outside of Glacier Bay, the growth rate has been struggling.

 Alaskan Bill Threatens to Introduce New Fur Trade
Legal Hunting of Sea Otters

Although the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) outlaws the killing of a marine mammal and the trading of its parts, an exception permits the unlimited and non-wasteful harvesting of sea otters by native peoples for subsistence and traditional purposes. It is lawful for native peoples to hunt sea otters and sell their parts, so long as the parts are sufficiently modified in a traditional fashion (to produce, for example, traditional handicrafts and garments). Selling unmodified sea otter pelts remains illegal under the current law.

A 2009 study shows that 8% of the northern segment of the southeast DPS population (outside of Glacier Bay, where hunting is illegal) is hunted each year. Because evidence of other common threats to sea otters (predation, pollution, disease and food limitation) is lacking, otter experts believe that the high harvest rate may be the cause for the decreased population growth rates of the sea otters in this region.  In 2010 alone, 601 sea otters were harvested from the southeast DPS; the highest annual harvest since 1993 and a 55% increase over the annual harvest in 2003.

The Threat

The Don Young bill threatens to increase the harvest levels even more, stripping the requirement under the MMPA that harvested sea otter parts be fashioned into a traditional craft by native peoples.  This opens the market for the trade of plain, unmodified sea otter pelts.  Nothing in the bill would restrict pelts from being sold to businesses and then be fashioned into coats or other commercial items.

The bill rather feeds the interest of Alaskan fisheries, creating a de facto management plan for northern sea otters. Because fishing groups compete with sea otters for their product, an indirect management plan to stabilize or reduce sea otter growth benefits them greatly.

The bill is disastrous for sea otters, the environment, and the people of Alaska. The sea otter’s role in maintaining kelp ecosystems are well known (and described in the No-Otter Zone article of this newsletter), providing numerous ecological and economic benefits to the nearshore environment. The sea otter is also a well-known tourist attraction in Alaska.

If this bill passes and harvest rates increase further, all progress made since the 1960s translocation programs to reintroduce otters and maintain a healthy and balanced nearshore environment that benefits the native peoples will be lost.

How you can help

This bill represents a major threat to sea otter recovery in Alaska. The fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries nearly destroyed the species. Write to your elected officials and urge them to oppose H.R. 2714 and S. 1453 (its identical counterpart in the Senate), the bill that reauthorized the fur trade. Visit www.seaotters.org/takeaction.html to learn how.

 

California extends vital fund for sea otters!

Earlier this month California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 971 which extended the California Sea Otter Fund voluntary “check-off” option on state income tax forms.

picture 6 California extends vital fund for sea otters!

The Fund has been an important financial source for researchers working at the California Department of Fish and Game and the California Coastal Conservancy who perform studies on the southern sea otter, a threatened species whose population is on the decline.

The law prolongs for another 5 years the option for Californian taxpayers to donate a portion of their tax return to the Fund. So far this year, California taxpayers have donated $331,028 to the Fund.

Thank you to all those who supported this bill!

How to Make Your Voice Heard and End the No-Otter Zone!

picture 1 How to Make Your Voice Heard and End the No Otter Zone!
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to end the No-Otter Zone off the coast of Southern California, you have a chance to make your voice heard!

You can be sure that this proposed rule will meet stiff opposition from those who fear increased competition from sea otters. But people like you can help bring clarity to the discussion. The benefits of returning sea otters to Southern California far outweigh the associated costs of increased fishing competition. Furthermore, countless studies conclude that maintaining the No-Otter Zone is detrimental to the southern sea otter recovery by increasing and concentrating the threats that sea otters are facing today to a geographically narrow range.

That’s why we, and the otters, need you to speak out!

In particular, the Fish and Wildlife Service is requesting comments concerning the following:

  1. The reasons why the southern sea otter translocation program, including the management and translocation zones and associated regulations, should or should not be terminated, including information that supports the need for any changes to the proposed rule;
  2. Current or planned activities in the subject area and their possible effects on southern sea otters that have not been adequately considered in the proposed rule, revised draft supplementary environmental impact statement (SEIS), and initial regulatory flexibility analysis (IRFA);
  3. Any foreseeable economic or other impacts resulting from the proposed termination of the southern sea otter translocation program that have not been adequately considered in the proposed rule, revised draft SEIS, and IRFA;
  4. Any substantive information on real or potential effects on southern sea otters of the proposed termination of the southern sea otter translocation program that have not been adequately considered in the proposed rule, revised draft SEIS, and IRFA; and
  5. Any actions that could be considered in lieu of, or in conjunction with, the proposed rule that would provide equivalent opportunity for the recovery of the southern sea otter.

The Fish and Wildlife Service would like to hear comments from the public on why you support sea otters expanding into the waters south of Point Conception. Your reasons can be as vague as why you personally like sea otters, or as specific as the economic and/or ecological benefits associated with sea otters. But here are some factual points that may help with your comments:

  • Sea otters once numbered in the hundreds of thousands and ranged from Baja California to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia until fur hunters decimated their population. Allowing uninhibited range expansion would be allowing otters to return to their historic home.
  • Sea otters play an important role as apex predators in the coastal environment by preying on urchins who feed on kelp.
  • When sea otters are present, kelp forests flourish and allow for an abundant diversity of life to thrive in coastal waters.
  • When absent, sea urchins dominate the ocean floor and feed voraciously on kelp which destroys the kelp ecosystem and creates “urchin barren” environments with much less productivity and biodiversity.
    • Sea otters are an important tourist attraction that could generate millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs for local economies.
    • The SNI population has not grown as expected and the original threat of an oil spill that could destroy the southern sea otter is still valid today. Allowing uninterrupted range expansion by ending the No-Otter Zone lessens the threat that a single disaster could make extinct the entire southern sea otter species.

Sea otter population growth has been the most robust in the southern part of its range in recent years, and there have been repeated incidents of large numbers of otters crossing into the No-Otter Zone. Allowing range expansion could enable more robust population growth.

There are four easy ways in which you can make your voice heard:

Sign our petition.

By signing our petition to urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to follow through and finally end the No-Otter Zone, you’ll be adding your name to possibly thousands of others who support the recovery of the southern sea otter. We’ll be sure to submit this petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service as part of our own comments. Just click here and follow the instructions on your screen.

Upload your own comments.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has made available to the public a fast and easy way to electronically send written comments on the proposed decision and associated environmental document. Just follow these 6 easy steps:

  1. Click here to go to the webpage made available to submit comments through www.Regulations.gov. In addition, click here to view the Revised Draft Supplement Environmental Impact Statement and Proposed Rule on which you are commenting.
  2. Fill out the required form and write your comment. Please be aware that there is a 20 minute time limit for this page. We suggest writing your comments first, and then copy and paste your comments in the comment box. For an example of what to include in your comment box, read our petition.
  3. Don’t forget to click Submit!

Write and mail a hardcopy of your comments.

Mail your comments to:

Public Comments Processing
Attn: FWS-R8-FHC-2011-0046
Division of Policy and Directives Management
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
4401 N. Fairfax Dr. MS 2042 – PDM
Arlington, VA 22203
Attend a public hearing and verbally make your comments. **most effective**
This is possibly the most effective way to make your comments known and your voice heard.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will be holding two separate public hearings at which you can deliver your comments or just show your support for sea otters by attending. Each public hearing will be preceded by a public information open house from 5-6PM. The floor will then be open for comments from 6-8PM. The three public hearings are:

September 27, 2011

Channel Islands National Park auditorium
1901 Spinnaker Drive
Ventura, CA 93001

Tuesday, October 4th

Fleischman Auditorium
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
2559 Puesta del Sol, 93105

Thursday, October 6th

La Feliz Room
Seymour Marine Discovery Center Long Marine Lab
100 Shaffer Rd.
Santa Cruz, CA 05060

Historically, those who oppose southern sea otter recovery in the No-Otter Zone are very vocal at these types of public hearings. Please consider showing your support for sea otters by attending a hearing! For more information, or to let us know that you will be attending, please do not hesitate to contact Friends of the Sea Otter. *  info@seaotters.org

*Please note that these are open public hearings and it is not necessary for you to inform Friends of the Sea Otter of your attendance. However, we would like to help prepare those who are willing to attend. If you would like more information on the No-Otter Zone, some suggested talking points, or to coordinate with FSO and/or other members, please contact us.

Sea Otter Conservation Coalition Endorses Renewal of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Efforts to Recover California’s Southern Sea Otter

Feds Propose to End the No-Otter Zone

picture 51 Sea Otter Conservation Coalition Endorses Renewal of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Efforts to Recover Californias Southern Sea Otter

MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA (Aug. 17, 2011) – A coalition of organizations welcomed news that
California’s struggling sea otters may soon get a big boost thanks to a draft plan released by
federal wildlife officials today that would end a controversial “no-otter” zone on the California
coast and allow the marine mammals to re-colonize their traditional habitat.

California sea otters are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In
1986, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) implemented a translocation program that
removed otters from the shoreline of Southern California and relocated them to San Nicolas
Island, with the hope of establishing a second viable population that would protect the species in
the event of any environmental disaster. At the same time, FWS implemented a “no-otter” zone
south of Point Conception in which otters would be removed and transported back north of the
zone’s boundary. Translocation failed to promote otter recovery, and FWS subsequently
determined that enforcement of the “no-otter” zone violates the ESA by jeopardizing the species’
recovery due to harm to the species during transport. FWS has long recognized that natural
range expansion is necessary to achieve species recovery for the California sea otter.

For the next 60 days, FWS is soliciting public input on the proposal before making a final
decision. Conservation groups that have been focused on efforts to aid the otter’s recovery were
quick to commend FWS’ proposal to end the translocation program and allow for the species’
natural range expansion.

Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Sea Otter, The Humane Society of the United States, and
the Monterey Bay Aquarium, issued the following statement:

“Today is a good day for California sea otters. We support an end to the ineffective and harmful
translocation program and “no-otter” management zone. For sea otters to have a real shot at
recovery, they must be allowed to return to their historic range off the coast of Southern
California. If sea otters thrive again throughout their historic range, the entire marine ecosystem
will benefit.”

*************************************************************************************

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their
natural communities. With more than 1 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a
leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to
come. 

For more information, visit www.defenders.org. Contact: Jim Curland, Marine Program
Associate, at (831) 726-9010 or jcurland@defenders.org.

Founded in 1968 and with over 4,000 members worldwide, Friends of the Sea Otter advances the conservation of sea otters by educating the public, supporting research, and advocating for the protection of the sea otter at the local, state, and federal level. 

www.seaotters.org. Contact:Jason Lutterman, Program Manager, at (831) 915-3275 or jlutterman@seaotters.org.

The Humane Society of the United States is the nation’s largest animal protection organization –backed by 11 million Americans, or one of every 28. For more than a half-century, The HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education and hands-on programs. Celebrating animals and confronting cruelty — 

On the web at humanesociety.org.Contact: Kristen Eastman, at (240) 654-2667 or keastman@humanesociety.org.

The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the oceans. Through its award-winning exhibits, education programs, conservation research initiatives and ocean policy advocacy, it reaches millions of people and advances progress toward creating a future with healthy oceans. www.montereybayaquarium.org.

Contact: Andrew Johnson, Program Manager, Sea Otter Research and Conservation, at (831) 648-7934 or ajohnson@mbayaq.org.

Comments on the Draft Recovery Plan for the Southwest Alaska Distinct Population Segment of the Northern Sea Otter

picture 25 Comments on the Draft Recovery Plan for the Southwest Alaska Distinct Population Segment of the Northern Sea Otter

February 9, 2011

VIA U.S. MAIL AND E-MAIL

Douglas M. Burn
Wildlife Biologist
Marine Mammals Management Office
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
1011 East Tudor Road
Anchorage, AK 99503

Submitted via e-mail to: r7_mmm-comment@fws.gov

Re: Comments on the Draft Recovery Plan for the Southwest Alaska Distinct Population Segment of the Northern Sea Otter

Dear Mr. Burn:

These comments on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Draft Recovery Plan for the Southwest Alaska Distinct Population Segment of the Northern Sea Otter, 75 Fed. Reg. 62,562 Oct. 12, 2010), are submitted on behalf of Friends of the Sea Otter, Defenders of Wildlife, Oceans Public Trust Initiative, a project of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium (the groups).[1] The groups collectively represent well over a million members nationwide who are concerned with the continued survival and recovery of the northern sea otter.

The groups have a long-standing commitment to issues surrounding sea otter protection and recovery, and appreciate the opportunity to provide comments on the FWS draft recovery plan (DRP). Overall, we are pleased with the DRP. It is clear that the Recovery Team has dedicated substantial time and effort in developing the DRP, and the groups believe that the recovery plan will be an important step in advancing the interests of sea otter conservation in Alaska. We appreciate the effort FWS has made toward the conservation of the northern sea otter and look forward to participating in continued efforts to carry out the actions necessary to achieve recovery of this species.

The groups’ comments focus on some areas of the DRP’s threat analysis, as well as more generalized comments on the DRP.

This letter also addresses the need to consider the mandates of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which will be an important component of the long-term northern sea otter conservation program.

Comments on Threat Analysis.

Predation

The foremost issue presented by the DRP is the impact of orca predation on the northern sea otter. Section 3, subsection A of the DRP, from pages 3-1 through 3-5, addresses the orca predation hypothesis. The DRP recognizes predation as the most likely cause of the decline of the northern sea otter population, and treats this factor as a moderate to high threat to recovery. The principal deficiency in the DRP, however, is its failure to discuss the reasons why the possible orca predation may have occurred and to factor into this recovery plan the measures that should be taken to eliminate or reduce the environmental problems causing any orca predation. Orca predation of sea otters, an atypical prey species, is a changed behavior whose root causes should be examined and discussed as part of the recovery program.

The most likely cause of any orca predation of sea otters is related to the collapse of the Bering Sea and North Pacific marine ecosystems. These collapses are well-documented and have had wide-ranging impacts on many species, including other predators at the top of the food chain. The DRP, however, includes virtually no discussion of this issue, even though it is critically important to the overall health of the marine ecosystem for the northern sea otter distinct population segment (DPS), and very well could be the primary causal factor for any orca predation of sea otters. The threat to sea otters is not orcas per se, but the factors that are causing any orca predation.

In addition to addressing the causes of orca predation, the DRP must discuss the actions that should be taken for eliminating those causes. The final recovery plan (FRP) must recognize and respond to the ecosystem declines that are affecting virtually all marine species in this region. From the conclusions offered in the DRP, sea otter recovery may very well be dependent on identifying and addressing the root causes of the collapse of these marine ecosystems, not because of the direct effect on sea otters, but because, as seen through any orca predation, those changes are indirectly affecting the sea otters by changing behaviors of other species. We believe that adding this critically important discussion to the recovery plan is required for a legally sufficient and scientifically comprehensive report on sea otter recovery.

We are aware of the difficulty in identifying and responding to the ecosystem collapse, and there may not be conclusive evidence currently available on how this environmental disaster in the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea is affecting orca predation. We also realize that the solutions to that problem are not easy. Nonetheless, it is up to an ESA recovery plan to tackle difficult questions of this nature, and the DRP is incomplete without consideration of this critically important issue.

The ESA itself requires that such discussions be included in the final recovery plan. Section 4(f) of the ESA requires that FWS develop and implement recovery plans “for the conservation and survival of endangered species and threatened species.” 16 U.S.C. § 1533(f) (emphasis added). The ESA defines the term “conservation” as “the use of all methods and procedures, which are necessary to bring any endangered species or threatened species to the point at which the measures provided pursuant to this chapter are no longer necessary.” Id. § 1532(3) (emphasis added). Thus, by requiring the use of “all methods and procedures” to promote the conservation of listed species, the ESA sets forth a broad mandate to FWS to address any and all threats and impediments to the species’ conservation and recovery in the plan. Here, any plan for the recovery of the northern sea otter must account for the collapse of the Bering Sea and North Pacific ecosystems.

There is agency precedent for recovery plans that approach threats to recovery in a comprehensive manner and account for indirect effects. The FWS and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Interim Recovery Planning Guidance (June 2010) recognizes and encourages this broad approach. “Recovery is the process by which listed species and their ecosystems are restored and their future is safeguarded to the point that protections under the ESA are no longer needed.” Id. at 1.1 (emphasis added). With that policy goal in mind, the joint guidance makes the following statement regarding the scope of recovery plans:

 

It is important to note that, although the ESA appears to focus on the individual species, subspecies,or [DPSs], the purposes of the ESA include conserving the ecosystems upon which listed species depend. Recovery plans should aim to address threats by restoring or protecting ecosystem functions or processes whenever and wherever possible… This approach is science-based and provides a means for required habitat to be maintained long-term in a dynamic way by natural processes. This broader perspective should be infused into all recovery plans, whether they be for single species (including subspecies and DPSs), or multiple species.

 

Id. at 2.1 (emphasis added).

Further authority for a broadened scope of review is found in the MMPA. The MMPA states that the “primary objective” of marine mammal management “should be to maintain the health and stability of the marine ecosystem.” Id. § 1361(6). The MMPA requires the preparation of conservation plans for depleted stocks. Id. § 1383b(b). The DPS of the northern sea otter is depleted under the definition of the MMPA because it is listed as a threatened species under the ESA. Under the MMPA, conservation plans “shall have the purpose of conserving and restoring the species or stock to its optimum sustainable population.” Id. § 1383b(b)(2). This mandate, which is even broader and more expansive than the mandate for recovery plans under the ESA, certainly includes the obligation to examine and address the root causes of increased orca predation. FWS has an obligation to prepare a conservation plan under the MMPA; while the recovery plan could serve both purposes, FWS would need to significantly broaden the scope of the DRP to address the MMPA’s goal of ecosystem health and stability. If the recovery plan is not intended to serve the dual purpose of an MMPA conservation plan, FWS should give notice as to when the MMPA conservation plan will be developed and lay the foundation for that review by providing additional ecosystem-related information in the FRP.

While the DRP does not address what appears to be the most significant factor related to the predation issue – reversing the regional ecosystem collapse – it does include a recovery measure for predation management plans. These plans would include the possibility of lethal or nonlethal removal of individual orcas. We consider this proposed action unacceptable. There is no evidence in the DRP of the behavior that would require such an extreme measure. Orcas themselves are protected under the MMPA from such removal, and, except under very limited authorities that are not applicable here, there is no apparent legal authority to take such action. For these reasons, we oppose including such plans as an element of the recovery program.

Fisheries Bycatch and Entanglement in Debris

Section 3, subsection H (pages 3-27 to 3-29) addresses the threat of bycatch and entanglement in debris. It concludes that while incidental mortality in commercial fisheries is generally low, within the range of the DPS there are a number of fisheries that have the potential to take sea otters and are without observer coverage. Addressed by fishery, the DPR relies on observer reports to determine the threat of fisheries bycatch and entanglement. The discussion is questionable, however because it assumes that the bycatch and entanglement reporting of fisheries is accurate and reliable. The section does not capture the true difficulties of coming to conclusions about the impacts of bycatch and entanglement when it is well understood that there is low and inaccurate reporting. While the DPR does give some mention of low observer coverage on fisheries that have the potential to “take” sea otters, the section remains weak in its presentation of this problem and the related threat to recovery.

Furthermore, the threats analysis on page 4-9 incorrectly states the overall threat assessment associated with fisheries bycatch. While bycatch may not be a significant individual threat to the population or even a contributor to population declines, it should not be ranked as “low.” As a potential contributor to cumulative population threats to an already declining population and impeding future recovery, bycatch should be ranked as a more significant threat. The groups especially believe this given the low confidence of FWS and fisheries experts as to how different fisheries may be interacting with sea otters. It is agreed that the observer coverage and amount of data collected to assess the threat of various fisheries in Southwest Alaska is poor and, therefore, to the extent possible depending on overlap between habitat used by sea otters and fisheries activities, further research must be conducted and more adequate methods of data retrieval implemented before the impacts can be dismissed as “low.” This is especially true for fisheries known to intersect with sea otters, including the eastern areas and eastern Aleutians for Dungeness crab fisheries, and the western and central eastern areas of the Alaska Peninsula for the set-net for salmon fisheries. Similarly, the priority level given to fisheries monitoring in subsection 3.2.1 on page 7-11 is inappropriate and should be raised to “priority 2.”

Subsistence Harvest

The DRP discussion on the threat posed by subsistence harvest does not provide the necessary level of attention and concern to the potential for take that would impede recovery. As an initial matter, there is insufficient information about take levels. Available data are very unreliable, and it is possible that take is occurring now at levels in excess of those reported. Even if take levels are currently low, it remains possible that take would increase as the DPS begins to recover. In other areas of Alaska, sea otters have been the subject of taking for commercial purposes, some of which have not been legally authorized under the ESA handicraft exemption. In addition, sea otters have been subjected to purposeful and unauthorized taking and are currently the subject of a campaign in southeast Alaska seeking sea otter culling and management for purported impacts to shellfish beds [2]. The final recovery plan should recognize the potential for similar problems to arise for the southwest Alaska DPS. In the final recovery plan, FWS should discuss the need for better reporting and monitoring of subsistence take and acknowledge a greater potential threat that such take at current or potentially higher future levels will impede recovery. This discussion should include an evaluation of the need to use existing legal authority applicable to ESA-listed and depleted species to establish quotas or other regulatory restrictions on subsistence harvest.

Oil Spills

The discussion of potential risk resulting from oil and gas leasing activities in section 3, subsection E, pages 3-19 through 3-21 correctly concludes that, while oil spills are not the reason for the population decline in southwest Alaska, they have the potential to be catastrophic to the population, and must be closely watched.

However, the groups disagree with the DRP’s assertion on page 4-7 that the management potential for the prevention and containment of small oil spills is thought to be high. Numerous federal agencies tasked with responding to offshore oil spills have repeatedly cited a lack of sufficient knowledge, technology, and resources to adequately contain and manage oil spills, especially those occurring in Alaskan waters. For example, Captain James J. Fisher, Chief, Office of Policy Integration, U.S. Coast Guard, recently gave a presentation detailing the current information gaps associated with the containment and removal of oil from icy conditions, as well as the physical lack of resources available and challenges of remote response locations.

[3] The National Oil Spill Commission’s January 11, 2011, final report,Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Oil, further acknowledges the challenges associated with potential oil spills in the Arctic:

…oil spilled off Alaska (from blowouts, pipeline or tanker leaks, or other accidents) is likely to degrade more slowly than that found in the Gulf of Mexico because of lower water temperatures, reduced mixing of the oil into the water due to the presence of ice, and the shallower depths through which oil would travel from the wellhead to the surface. Some think the slow weathering could facilitate the skimming and in situ burning of escaped oil under ideal weather conditions, but the slow pace of natural dispersion means that oil would linger much longer in the marine environment. And serious questions remain about how to access spilled oil when the area is iced over or in seasonal slushy conditions.

Id. at 302. It should be noted that while the potential risk resulting from oil and gas development in Bristol Bay is currently moot due to the cancellation of the lease sales by the Administration, should they go forward at some point, there will continue to be a risk of overlap between exploration and development activities and the range necessary to facilitate sea otter recovery. Furthermore, there remains a continuing threat of oil spills throughout the range of this DPS associated with vessel accidents and discharges. The potential risks associated with planned oil and gas extraction in Cook Inlet or future leasing that may occur near the Aleutians also remains of concern. Thus, the FRP should treat the potential for oil spills as a higher priority threat and develop appropriate strategies for responding to protect sea otters.

General Comments

Recovery Strategy

This section, beginning on page 5-1, correctly concludes that while there are factors that may not actually currently be the cause of the declines in the sea otter population, any mortality is cumulative and can exacerbate an already serious problem if not monitored and, if necessary, mitigated. The groups support the inclusion of this statement in the DRP, and encourage FWS to ensure that other potential threats and factors be carefully monitored over time, even if they are not the main cause of the declines.

History of Population Dynamics

The DRP discusses recent population declines throughout the sea otter range. See DRP, pages 2- 11 to 2-23. It fails to mention, however, the decline that occurred in the mid-1980s that was associated with incidental take in set-net fisheries of southern sea otters. That decline was halted, and population growth resumed, due in large part to the California fisheries closures for multiple species that were, in turn, instigated by the MMPA and ESA take prohibitions.

The DRP also includes only a limited discussion of the MMPA, both in terms of its effect on protecting sea otters and prohibitions and management goals that, in some cases, extend further beyond those of the ESA. In particular, the MMPA sets the goal of achieving an optimum sustainable population (OSP) level for all marine mammals. That objective is independent of sea otter recovery and delisting under the ESA, and is generally equated with a range of population sizes at or above 60 percent of the carrying capacity of the species’ habitat. The FRP should at least identify the additional legal goal that FWS is charged with carrying out under the MMPA.

Finally, the MMPA sets as its primary goal the health and stability of the ecosystem of which marine mammals are a part. This objective is closely related to several key elements of the DRP, especially the ecosystem standard for recovery described in Appendix A. The separate MMPA objective for this purpose bolsters the ESA justification and certainly should be included in the relevant DRP discussion.

Listing of Species

The 2005 listing decision and DRP do not provide a sufficient explanation as to why the five management units (MU) are not treated as separate DPSs. Under a joint policy developed by FWS and NMFS, in order to constitute a DPS, a population must exhibit (1) “discreteness” in relation to the remainder of the species, and (2) “significance” to the species to which it belongs. 61 Fed. Reg. 4,722 (Feb. 7, 1996). Based on the discussion in the DRP at pages 2-12 to 2-23, it appears that a case may exist for treating each MU as a separately listed DPS. The FRP should explain the grounds for establishing MUs that do not qualify as DPSs.

FWS has no biological or legal justification for stating that delisting would be achieved when the identified goals are attained for three of the five MUs. See DRP, page 6-3. Under the ESA, it appears that recovery of the sea otters must be premised on all of the MUs meeting the recovery thresholds. While the DRP does note that “[d]elisting should not be considered if any one of the MUs meets the criteria specified for uplisting to endangered,” it still allows for delisting in the event that two of the five MUs are in worse shape than when listed, so long as goals are attained for the remaining three MUs. This policy could theoretically result in mandatory delisting even if the health of the overall population, as measured by the state of all five MUs together, is worse off than when the species was listed in the first place.

Population Monitoring and Research

Section 7, subsection 1 “Recovery Program: Population monitoring and research” (page 7-1, 7-3 to 7-8) does a good job of identifying activities that should take place in order to ensure proper population monitoring and research. However, there is a need not only for all of the activities under this subsection to be done, but the DRP should have emphasized that they need to be done on an annual basis in order to accurately monitor the population and be able to step in quickly should the resulting trend data indicate any emerging problems. FWS has put together a good monitoring plan that meets these goals that should be included as an addendum to the final recovery plan. This needs to be made a funding priority by the agencies in order to effectuate true species recovery.

Conclusion

In summary, the groups generally support the DRP. However, some significant issues remain that FWS must address in the final version. The scope of the DRP should be substantially broadened to include and address the health of the larger ecosystem and the causes of orca predation. Other threats, including fisheries bycatch, entanglement in debris, subsistence harvest, and oil spills, should be analyzed from the perspective that, for a species in decline, each instance of take can have cumulatively significant impacts on the outlook for species recovery.

We thank you for the opportunity to comment and participate in this significant step forward for the Southwest Alaska DPS of the northern sea otter.

Very truly yours,
Jennifer Covert, Senior Program Manager
Friends of the Sea Otter
Andrew Johnson, Sea Otter Research and Conservation Manager
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Cindy Lowry, Director
Oceans Public Trust Initiative, a Project of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project
Karla Dutton, Director, Alaska Programs
Defenders of Wildlife

[1] The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is regularly a part of this group, or coalition, of organizations concerned with sea otter issues; HSUS has submitted their own comments to the DRP.

[2] See, City of Petersburg, Alaska Resolution No. 1958: A Resolution Requesting that State and Federal Managing Authorities Become More Actively Involved in Managing the Sea Otter Population and Find Ways to Revive Lost Economies Due to the Relocation and Re-Colonization of Sea Otters in Southeast Alaska (Jan. 18, 2011); Craig Community Association Resolution 2011-08: Craig Community Association Tribal Council Requesting that State of
Alaska and Federal Authorities Become More Actively Involved in Managing the Sea Otter Population and Find Ways to Revive Lost Economies Due to the Relocation and Re-Colonization of Sea Otters in Southeast Alaska (2011); Letter from J. Bolling, Chairman of the Prince of Wales Community Advisory Council, to G. Haskett, Alaska Regional Director, FWS (Feb. 3, 2011).

[3] Captain James J. Fisher, Chief, Office of Policy Integration, U.S. Coast Guard, panelist at the Environmental Law Institute’s seminar Arctic Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning and the Role of the Arctic People (March 11, 2010). Presentation materials available at: http://www.eli.org/Seminars/past_event.cfm?eventid=539.