When I was little, if you had told me to choose any animal that I wanted to be I would have chosen the sea otter. To me a sea otter is nature’s clown, which made sense that I wanted to be one since I considered myself the class clown. Now that I am older however, I would not feel so confident in choosing the sea otter. Not only do I no longer consider myself a class clown, but these wonderful animals are declining in numbers rapidly and not enough is currently being done to solve the problem.
A. What Are Sea Otters?
Sea otters are marine mammals that live in coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean. They are classified as follows: Kingdom-Animalia, Phylum: Chorodata, Class-Mammalia, Order-Carnivora, Family-Mustelidae, Genus-Enhydra, Species-lutris, making there scientific name Enhydra lutris. Measuring only 4 feet long and weighing on average between 50-60 pounds, sea otters are the smallest marine mammals in North America. Since they are considered carnivores their diet consists of over 40 marine invertebrates including crabs, lobster, sea urchins and there favorite, abalone. Sea otters have been known to act omnivorous in times of low food supply, meaning that they will also eat plants, such as kelp. One interesting thing about sea otters is that they are one of the only marine animals to use tools in order to eat their food. When the sea otters return to the surface with their prey they will lie on their backs, place the food on their chests and break open the prey using a rock or bottle as a tool. Sea otter males live between 10 and 15 years while females live between 15 and 20. Sea otters generally give birth to only one pup a year. In the slight occasion that they give birth to two, they will abandon the second since they can only care for one at a time. This is one of the reasons why sea otter populations are having such a hard time re-populating. Besides humans, the sea otter’s natural predators include great white sharks, sea lions, coyotes, bears and even eagles.
B. Why Are They Important?
While being considered “nature’s clowns,” sea otters are also held to be a “key stone species” “meaning their feeding habits affect organisms lower in the food chain.” Without sea otters, young fin fish and other marine species would not have the vibrant kelp forests they need for food and survival. Apparently, a healthy population of sea otters keeps the sea urchin population in check. An unhealthy or small population of sea otters allows the sea urchin’s number to explode thus decimating kelp beds, which is the sea urchin’s food source, and causing a “chain reaction that depletes the food supply for other marine animals [consequently] caus[ing] their decline.”
C. Where Are They Found?
Sea otters once ranged from northern Japan to the Alaskan peninsula and along the west coast of North America to Baja California in Mexico. Although the sea otters are found over a large portion of the world there are only three subspecies of sea otter recognized: the southern, or California, sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis), the northern sea otter (Enhydra lutris kenyoni), found of the coast of Oregon, Washington and Alaska and the Russian sea otter (Enhydra lutris lutris), which will not be discussed.
II. History of Sea Otters
A. Why and When Did the Hunting of Sea Otters Begin?
Until the 1700’s, sea otters were abundant throughout the waters of the north Pacific and for centuries native groups, such as the Aleuts, hunted them. During this time, the worldwide sea otter population numbered between 150,000 to 300,000. The extremely profitable sea otter fur trade began in 1741 when a shipwrecked Russian expedition led by Vitus Bering discovered sea otters on one of the Commander Islands and later coerced the Aluets into exploiting the sea otters for the fur trade.
B. The International Fur Seal Treaty of 1911
By the 1900’s the sea otters were nearly extinct with only 13 remnant colonies existing from Russia to Mexico numbering only 1,000 or 2,000 individuals. Thus, in 1911 the U.S., Russia, Japan, and Great Britain signed the International Fur Seal Treaty and outlawed the sale of sea otter fur while also ending the pelagic killing of fur seals on the high seas. The treaty also provided a formula for sharing the kills made on the rookeries, or the breeding grounds. This formula gave the rookery-owning nation 70 percent of the harvest and the other 30 percent was divided among the other nations. By 1940 Japan had withdrawn from the treaty causing it to expire. From 1941 till 1957, an interim agreement between the U.S. and Canada regulated the harvesting of sea otters.
In 1957 the treaty was finally re-drafted to account for the population changes in the various locations of sea otters. This re-draft continued to regulate the fur-trade until 1988 “when a steep decline in the population of fur seals plus a strong effort by animal welfare groups prevented the United States’ ratification of the protocol to extend the groups agreement consequently forcing them to adopt a new more stringent regulation system.”
C. The Sea Otter’s Return via the Marine Animal Protection Act of 1972 & Endangered Species Act of 1973
In the 1950’s attempts to reestablish sea otters to their former unoccupied habitat began in the U.S. Sadly, while all these effort failed to establish populations, the knowledge gained from these first efforts led to successful attempts as early as the 1960’s. Over the next 12 years the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began translocating sea otters to sites where the species occurred before the fur-trade period including areas of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. By the 1970’s the Alaskan sea otter population, the largest remaining natural population, in the Aleutians reached somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000.
D. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972
Also during this time the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1361-1407, was created. Under this act, all sea otters in the U.S were, and still are, classified as “depleted.” “Depleted,” under the MMPA, “means any case in which the Secretary, after consultation with the Marine Mammal Commission and the Committee of Scientific Advisors on Marine Mammals established under subchapter III of this chapter, determines that a species or population stock is below its optimum sustainable population.” This meant that the sea otter species and population stocks were now protected to the point where they
should not be permitted to diminish beyond the point at which they cease to be a significant functioning element in the ecosystem of which they are a part, and, consistent with this major objective, they should not be permitted to diminish below their optimum sustainable population. Further measures should be immediately taken to replenish any species or population stock which has already diminished below that population. In particular, efforts should be made to protect essential habitats, including the rookeries, mating grounds, and areas of similar significance for each species of marine mammal from the adverse effect of man's actions.
The act did, however, set out procedures for the secretary to allow for incidental taking of small numbers of marine mammals through a specific activity in a specified geographic region while allowing the secretary to also regulate the taking of depleted marine mammals by an Indian group, including the Aleuts or Eskimos. “The term ‘take’ means to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal.” These procedures were rarely used by the secretary and the act seemed to fulfill its immediate goal of reducing the incidental kill or incidental injury of marine mammals in commercial fishing to insignificant levels, approaching a zero mortality and serious injury rate.
E. The Endangered Species Act of 1973
The very next year another important piece of legislation was passed, entitled the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which also helped sea otters. This act was even more effective than the MMPA or the Fur seal treaty of 1911. One reason it was, and still is, so effective was because it was the only piece of environmental legislation to date that did not demand a cost-benefit analysis before going into action It also applied to all Federal Departments and agencies which is much broader than any legislation before or after it.
Under the ESA, once a species is declared endangered/threatened, the Act requires that it be protected by prohibiting actions that harm or kill an endangered species or destroy its habitat. The ESA can also require that a certain geographical area be set aside as “critical habitat” upon a determination by the Secretary that such areas are essential for the conservation of the species. Any specific area which is deemed “critical habitat” shall then gain “special management considerations of protection,” meaning that it will be set aside and protected for the sole purpose of increasing the numbers of a particular threatened species that resides there. This “critical habitat” may not however include the entire geographical area which can be occupied by the threatened or endangered species, which undermines efforts for sea otter conservation.
In 1977, the southern sea otter was listed as “threatened” under the ESA. This essentially meant that sea otters had not yet been deemed endangered, and currently are still not, but could be in the near foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The difference between listing the sea otter as threatened over endangered is that listing as endangered gives animal species protection under Section 9 of the ESA, which prohibits the “take” of a Federally-listed endangered species. To “take” is defined as "to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect." Threatened species protection on the other hand does not automatically give shelter under the Act. However, the act has applied most of the same protections described above to threatened species. This is authorized through section (4) of the act. Exceptions are sometimes, however, made to the “take” rule for threatened species under section 4(d), and take permits may also be issued to allow more activities that affect threatened species. All in all it would greatly benefit the sea otter to be listed as “endangered” over “threatened.”
III. Present Day Concerns and Protections of Sea Otters
During the 1970’s and 80’s, the sea otter population rapidly increased and showed signs of possibly retuning to its original carrying capacity. However, during the past 20 years the population has been declining again from its approximate high of 90,000 in 1985 to only a few thousand individuals today. The California sea otter seems to be the hardest hit with only 2,139 left as of October 5, 2006.  Since the sea otters are no longer being killed for the fur trade, it is important to learn what is causing their species, which was recently 90,000 strong, to be depleted so fast while they are protected by the MMPA and the ESA.
A. Death of Sea Otters by Disease
One of the main reasons for the rapid decline in the sea otter population is disease. One-quarter of the 281 sea otters found dead last year have been linked “to a pair of protozoan parasites, Toxoplasma gondii and Sacrocystis neurona, that are known to breed in cats and opossums.” Now how the parasites are making there way into the ocean in the first place is a sort of mystery that needs to be solved. Some suggest that the cause stems from those Californians flushing used kitty litter down the toilet. Luckily Governor Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill that required all cat litter sold in California to carry a warning label “advising cat owners not to dump their pet’s droppings into toilets or storm drains” and raised the maximum fine for harming any sea otter to $25,000.
This bill (AB 2485) also created a research program, “administered through the California Coastal Conservancy, to study sea otter mortality from non-point source pollution, and treatment technologies for pathogens affecting sea otter mortality.” Other diseases which are also currently causing the deaths of California sea otters include thorny-headed worms dropped into the ocean by seabirds, toxic algae blooms triggered by urea, a key ingredient in fertilizer, and even PCBS accumulated by the shellfish which the sea otters eat.
B. Death of Sea Otters by Oil
Another major cause of decline in the sea otter populations stems from the nations bloodline, oil. Although there has not been a major oil spill off the coast of the U.S. since February, 1990, when an American Trader leaked 300,000 gallons of crude oil polluting Bosa Chica, one of southern California's biggest nature preserves, the effects of that spill and the 10 million gallons spilled by the Exxon Valdez are still being felt today. It is known that over 1,000 sea otters died shortly after the Exxon Valdez; what is not known is that the death toll may be three times as high. Since acute oil exposure in sea otters results in lung, liver, and kidney damage, the effects of the oil may not harm the otters until years after they have encountered it. Also, other sources of oil pollution may be continuing to cause problems for the sea otters such as offshore drilling, onshore pipelines, leaky oil tankers, and the dumping of sea water used to wash out the tankers back into the ocean.
C. Other Causes of Death for Sea Otters
Other less major causes of death for sea otters include natural predators, boat props, gill nets and poaching. Luckily only four sea otters were poached in the last 14 months and less than 100 have been caught by gill nets in over three years. It has however been estimated that over 40,000 Alaskan sea otters have been eaten by killer whales since 1990. It seems that because of the decline in the killer whales typical prey, such as stellar sea lions and harbor seals, a small number of killer whales have shifted their main diet to sea otters. Even though only a small number of the killer whales eat sea otters, when an individual animal can eat over 1,800 a year it tends to have a large impact. Luckily, killer whales have yet to pose a threat to the small southern California sea otter population.
IV. Current Sea Otter Protections
Now that we know and understand the various threats the sea otters are facing, it seems important to next take a look at what protections are already in place and what actions are being taken to reduce these threats. Besides the already discussed Fur seal treaty of 1911, MMPA of 1972, ESA addition of 1977, and California’s recently passed bill (AB 2485), sea otters have enjoyed other federal protections along with various local and state protections afforded to them recently.
A. Southern California Sea Otter Protections
The most recent federal protection of southern sea otters is the “Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act,” which was created by the first session of the 108th Congress in 2003. The assorted protection afforded to southern sea otters under this act can be found in section 3 (a) (1)-(5) of the act and include: 1) monitoring, 2) protection, 3) reduction/elimination of harmful factors, 4) assessment of health, and 5) education and outreach. The southern sea otter is also listed as a “fully protected mammal” in the state of California. Its full protection stems from several California statutes and agencies including the Marine Resources Protection act of 1990, chapter 7.4 Oil Spill Response and Contingency Plan, and the California Code Fish and Game Division. Other more recent protections which California has provided for its sea otter population include shutting down the Monterey Bay set-gillnet fishery for halibut and angel shark on September 11, 2000.
B. Northern Alaskan Sea Otter Protections
Whereas the southern California sea otter seems to be sufficiently protected the northern Alaskan sea otter is in serious need of help. Not only does it not have any specific state protection, it also lacks listing as either endangered or even threatened under the ESA of 1973. Because of the absence of protection, the Alaskan sea otter population, the largest population in the world, has fallen from an estimated 55,000-73,700 individuals in 1985 to as few as 6,000 in the year 2000. Various attempts have been made to list the northern Alaskan sea otter on the ESA, including the Center for Biological Diversity filing two formal administrative petitions, three notice letters, and finally a lawsuit in December 2003, challenging the agency for failing to take any action to protect the endangered sea otter population. Finally, on February 9, 2004, the Bush administration proposed listing the northern sea otter as a threatened species under the ESA. The difficulty which it took to list the northern sea otter on the ESA came as no surprise since all 21 species that the Bush administration has protected were the result of court orders.
V. The Future of Sea Otters
The sea otter’s future presently does not look very good with only 8,000 to 10,000 left, and that number is rapidly declining. With the recent proposal to add the Alaskan sea otter on the ESA, and California’s passing of their new bill (AB 2485), which will sufficiently reduce the amount of used kitty litter polluting the ocean, sea otters for now seem to at least have a future, however grim it may be. While the protected status of sea otters through out the world continues to increase there is still much that can be done to help these wonderful animals.
A. Already Proposed Ways to Help Protect Sea Otters
Some of the already proposed ways found to help the sea otters, besides donating to the Friends of the Sea Otter organization, include: 1) reducing the amount of storm drain pollution and kitty litter flushed down toilets, 2) buying environmentally friendly products, 3) using paper over plastic and Styrofoam, 4) using public transportation and carpools, and last but not least, 5) RECYCLE! These 5 methods above are things that all of us can do to help save the sea otter. By doing anyone of these 5 things we can reduce the amount of pollution, specifically of that from oil, being dumped into our oceans which, as described above, is rapidly killing off the sea otters.
The first of the five proposals will greatly reduce the amount of sea otter deaths from the parasites, Toxoplasma gondii and Sacrocystis neurona, known to breed in cats. The remaining four proposals are everyday things that we can do to reduce our countries oil consumption. Not only will there be a reduction in oil pollution caused by our countries manufactures because they will be making less oil based products, but the rate of oil spills in our oceans will significantly be reduced since fewer oil tankers will be required to make the trip across the ocean in order to supply our country with more oil.
B. Other Possible Ways to Protect Sea Otters
Some of my own suggestions to help reduce the sea otter’s rapid population decline consist of an array of more difficult methods that have yet to be suggested by the public and include: 1) filing a petition to raise the status of sea otters from threatened to endangered; 2) creating areas of “critical habitat” for sea otters under the ESA thus doubling their likelihood of recovery, according the Fish and Wildlife Service; 3) passing laws to reduce the take limits on the food sources both of the sea otters and the killer whales which have turned to the sea otters as a primary food source; 4) creating regulations to reduce the harm to the sea otters and the entire ocean cause by gill nets, off-shore oil drills, onshore pipelines, leaky oil tankers and use of sea water to wash out boats/tankers; and lastly, 5) investing in research to develop a new “sea otter friendly” kitty litter and then market it as such, similar to the dolphin free white albacore tuna idea.
C. Increased Protection under the ESA
Beginning with the first suggestion, by raising the sea otter’s protection from threatened to endangered, exceptions to the “take” rule concerning sea otters will no longer be allowed, and take permits will also no longer be issued to allow more activities that affect the sea otter’s species. Although anyone may file this particular petition, before doing so a person must first gather a substantial amount of scientific evidence to support their proposal to change the status of the sea otter. In doing this, the petitioner should pay attention to the five factors that the Secretary of Commerce will use in determining whether the sea otter’s status should be changed from threatened to endangered. The five factors are as follows: a) the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; b) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; c) disease or predation d) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or e) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence. Since the sea otter falls under categories (a), (c), and (e) it seems that a petitioner with an adequate amount of correct scientific evidence would have a good chance in changing the sea otter’s status.
D. Designation of “Critical Habitat”
Moving on to the second suggestion, creating a “critical habitat” for sea otters will double their likelihood of recovery by creating “special management considerations of protection,” for the areas in which they live. Again, any person may petition for the creation of critical habitat for sea otters, but before doing so, he or she must again gather a substantial amount of scientific evidence to support the proposal. After receiving this evidence the Secretary of Commerce will designate any habitat as “critical” which he feels is required to prevent the extinction of the sea otters. When doing this though, the Secretary will take into consideration the economic impact, and any other relevant impacts, of specifying any particular area as critical habitat, and exclude any area if he determines that the benefits of such exclusion outweigh the benefits of specifying such area as part of the critical habitat. Since the sea otter’s habitat seems to come into conflict with many of the large U.S businesses, specifically oil, designation of “critical habitat” may not occur in the current administration.
E. Reducing Killer Whale Related Sea Otter Deaths
According to the third suggestion, by passing laws to reduce the take limits of the killer whales food source, the number of killer whales forced to prey on sea otters should greatly reduce. Although it is not certain that those killer whales preying on the over 1,800 sea otters will discontinue their slaughter once there normal food source has returned, the idea at least warrants trying. Since the killer whales main source of prey are marine mammals, reducing their take limits should not be too difficult since they should already be protected under the MMPA. If this protection is not enough then a petition should be filed, following the steps above, to temporarily list the killer whale’s prey on the ESA for the purpose of determining whether or not the whales really are preying on sea otters because of a lack of their normal food source. If this does not work, then there is always the possibility of re-locating those specific killer whales preying on the sea otters.
F. Increased Fishing and Oil Regulations
Under the fourth suggestion, a reduction in the use of gill nets and oil based pollution of our oceans will brighten the sea otter’s future by reducing the number of sea otter deaths related to these two causes. One way to reduce the gill net related deaths of sea otters is to create a designated habitat for them which would in essence preclude the use of gill nets in or around the sea otter’s habitat. The steps for creation of such habitat are listed above under “designation of ‘critical habitat.’” One way to reduce the oil based pollution of our oceans would be to enforce those regulations already imposed upon the companies doing the polluting, or to file a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to increase those regulations. Since oil companies are unlikely to comply with existing restrictions in the current political climate, the best course of action is to increase those protections.
Under the Code of Federal Regulation 40 part 260.20, anyone may petition the EPA to modify or revoke any provision of 40 CFR Parts 260-266 and 268. The process by which this is done is as follows. According to Section 260.20, each petition must include: 1) the petitioner's name and address, 2) a statement of the petitioner's interest in the proposed action, 3) a description of the proposed action, 4) a statement of the need and justification for the proposed action (including any supporting tests, studies, or other information). Upon submission, the EPA reviews the petition and publishes tentative decision in the Federal Register to grant or deny it. After the comment period, EPA evaluates all timely public comments and publishes the final decision in the Federal Register.
G. Sea Otter Friendly Kitty Litter
The final suggestion is pretty much self explanatory. By developing a new kitty litter which somehow kills the two parasites known to breed in cats, Toxoplasma gondii and Sacrocystis neurona, one might effectively eliminate sea otter deaths caused by these two diseases. Furthermore, if one were to somehow create such a sea otter friendly kitty litter, he or she could market it as such, which it turn would most likely cause people to by it more since no one really wants to kill sea otters. In order for this idea to work, it should be marketed to some local California research facility as a way to help out the environment, sea otters, and make a lot of money similarly to the dolphin free white albacore tuna companies.
Although the population of sea otters continues to decline worldwide there is hope that they will one day return to their former glory in the animal kingdom. Clearly the world has long recognized the need and use of these beautiful creatures, as the first treaty to protect them was signed almost 100 years ago, and they have been included in almost every major animal protection statute since then. However, though the protective history of the sea otters looks promising for their future, this nation’s wasteful and lazy attitude towards the environment and the many animals within it seems to be blocking the efficiency of those protections already created. While we no longer destroy the sea otters for their furs, we do destroy their habitat with our pollution and need for oil. Even though there are many ways in which to reduce this pollution and destruction of habitat, such methods need to be acted on in order to have any effect. If we are not careful, we will not only lose “nature’s clowns,” but most likely several other species relying on the sea otters to keep the kelp beds vibrant and full of life.
 Jeff Woods, Latest Census Casts More Doubt on Future of Sea Otters.
 John F. Watson and Terry L. Root, Introduction to the Special Issue: Why Southern Sea Otters?
 Dale D. Goble & Eric T. Freyfogile, Widlife Law Cases and Materials, 896 (Foundation Press Pub. 2002).
 Dale D. Goble & Eric T. Freyfogile, Widlife Law Cases and Materials, 896.
 Dale D. Goble & Eric T. Freyfogile, Widlife Law Cases and Materials, 896 (Foundation Press Pub. 2002).
 Ronald J. Jameson, Translocated Sea Otter Populations off the Oregon and Washington Coasts.
 16 U.S.C. § 1362(1)(A) (1988).
 16 U.S.C. § 1361(2) (1988).
 16 U.S.C. §§ 1371,1421(h) (1988).
 16 U.S.C. §§ 1362(13) (1988).
 16 U.S.C. § 1531(c)(1) (1988).
 16 U.S.C. § 1532(5) (1988).
 16 U.S.C. § 1532(20) (1988).
 16 U.S.C. § 1538 (1988).
 16 U.S.C. § 1534 (1988).
 Mary E. Allen & Mark L. Kuhlmann, Search for the Missing Sea Otters: An Ecological Detective Story, pg. 1.
 Brent Plater, Sea otter Population Decline Continues.
 Daniel H. Monson ET AL., Long-term impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on sea otters, assessed through age-dependent mortality patterns, (2000).
 Friends of the Sea Otter-Information, at http://www.seaotters.org/Otters/index.cfm?DocID=29 .
 Jeff Woods, Latest Census Casts More Doubt on Future of Sea Otters, at http://www.defenders .org/newsroom/census/html.
 H.R. 3545, Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act.
 CA Const Art. 10B § 15; CA Govt. § 8670.37.5; CA Fish & G § 8610.15.
 J.R. Pegg, Vanishing Alaskan Sea Otters to Get Legal Protection.
 J.R. Pegg, Vanisghin Alaskan Sea Otters to Get Legal Protection.
 16 U.S.C. § 1534 (1988).
 16 U.S.C. § 1533 (a) (1) (A-E) (1988).
 16 U.S.C. § 1532(5) (1988) .
 16 U.S.C. § 1533(b)(2) (1988).
 40 C.F.R. § 260.20 (1995).