Otter capture plan questioned

Posted: Thursday, January 06, 2000

ANCHORAGE - Two Japanese aquariums want to capture as many as four Alaska sea otters, a request that has angered environmental groups.

The Toba Aquarium and IZU-MITO Sea Paradise aquarium have applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to catch up to two sea otters each from around Kodiak in the next five years. They have told wildlife officials they want to display and breed the animals, and they need the young animals to replace older ones that are dying off.

Otters make very popular exhibits in Japan, said Linda Comerci, a wildlife biologist with the federal wildlife service who is reviewing the request. The deadline for public comment is Jan. 11.

The request poses no biological threat to the sea otter population around Kodiak, said Comerci of Anchorage.

Kodiak, unlike some other areas of Alaska, has healthy numbers of sea otters. An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 of the marine mammals live in waters around the island and continue to thrive despite a subsistence harvest of several hundred animals a year, she said.

But several environmental groups, including the Earth Island Institute, U.S. Humane Society and two Japanese groups hope to stop the otter capture.

Taking animals from the wild and placing them in captivity is wrong, said Mark Berman, a member of Earth Island Institute, a California-based group best known for helping free Keiko the killer whale from captivity in Mexico. Keiko is now being kept in a bay in Iceland.

``These mammals belong in the wild in their own habitat, period,'' Berman said. ``The only thing the aquariums want the sea otters for is their cuddly quotient so they can keep their turnstiles going for gate receipts.''

Besides believing capturing the otters is ethically wrong, Berman said it can kill the animals.

Two of the six Alaska otters captured last year for Japanese aquariums died within a week of arriving in that country. The animals died of pneumonia, Comerci said. The shock of transport could have played a role.

The agency is reviewing how the animals were transported and could require additional steps to ease the mammals' trips, including allowing more time between capture and transport, she said. A veterinarian is required to travel with the animals.

It's rare for wild marine mammals to be taken out of Alaska, she said, estimating less than half dozen a year are exported. Animals that are found abandoned or stranded are given to zoos or other wildlife facilities.

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