ANCHORAGE - Federal scientists will be counting the number of Aleutian sea otters over the coming months to determine if they should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
While sea otter numbers are healthy elsewhere in Alaska, a survey two years ago found that the sea otter population had crashed at least 70 percent along the Aleutian Chain in just eight years. Subsequent surveys have found similar alarming declines in that region, including a 90 percent crash in sea otter numbers along the southern side of the Alaska Peninsula.
Scientists don't know what is causing the crash.
"We're going to evaluate all the information and determine whether or not the Southwest sea otters should be listed as threatened or endangered," said biologist Douglas Burn of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We'll be having a lot of public meetings out in Southwestern Alaska, and we'll be doing a lot of public outreach."
Sea otter numbers are stable in Prince William Sound and increasing in Southeast Alaska.
Some scientists have argued that predation by a small number of killer whales or sharks could have caused the decline in Southwest Alaska, but there's little hard evidence to support the hypothesis.
The most recent detailed population data have been released for public review, Burn said. People can view the stock assessments online at www.r7.fws.gov/mmm/sar.
"We want the public to know this is an opportunity for them to look at it and tell us what they think," he said.
About 30 federal and independent biologists met last week in Anchorage to review the data and discuss what should happen next, Burn said.
"From this group, there seemed to be pretty much general acceptance of those survey results -- acceptance that there is a really big decline of sea otter in Southwest Alaska," Burn said. "Once you have accepted that fact, the question becomes what can we do about it."
Over the next season, biologists will continue to perform population surveys from small boats, observe killer whale behavior and work with Native groups to collect genetic data and tissue samples, Burn said.