[Federal Register: February 6, 2004 (Volume 69, Number 25)]
[Page 5861-5863]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 90-Day Finding on 
a Petition To Delist the Southern Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris nereis)

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of 90-day petition finding.


SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), announce a 
90-day finding for a petition to remove the southern sea otter (Enhydra 
lutris nereis), throughout its range, from the Federal List of 
Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, pursuant to the Endangered Species 
Act of 1973, as amended (ESA) (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.). We reviewed the 
petition and supporting documentation, information in our files, and 
other available information, and find that there is not substantial 
information indicating that delisting of the southern sea otter may be 
warranted. We will not be initiating a further status review in 
response to the petition to delist. We ask the public to submit to us 
any new information that becomes available concerning the status of 
this species. This information will help us monitor and promote the 
conservation of this species.

DATES: The finding announced in this document was made on November 14, 
2003. You may submit new information concerning this species for our 
consideration at anytime.

ADDRESSES: Data, information, written comments and materials, or 
questions concerning this petition and finding should be submitted to 
the Field Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ventura Fish and 
Wildlife Office, 2493 Portola Road, Suite B, Ventura, California 93003. 
The petition finding and supporting data are available for public 
inspection, by appointment, during normal business hours at the above 
Ventura address.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Lilian Carswell, Biologist, Southern 
Sea Otter Recovery Program, at the above Ventura address, or telephone 


[[Page 5862]]


    We listed the southern sea otter as a threatened species in 1977 
(42 FR 2968; January 14, 1977) because of its small population size, 
its limited distribution, and potential risk to its habitat and 
population from oil spills. Critical habitat was not proposed. We 
approved the first recovery plan for the southern sea otter in 1982, 
and we published a final revised recovery plan in 2003 (Service 2003).
    Because the southern sea otter is listed as a threatened species, 
it is also recognized as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection 
Act of 1972, as amended (16 U.S.C. 1361-1407). Under the Marine Mammal 
Protection Act, Federal agencies are charged with managing marine 
mammals to their optimum sustainable population level. The estimated 
optimum sustainable population level for southern sea otters is greater 
than that required for delisting consideration under the ESA. We 
estimate that the lower limit of the optimum sustainable population 
level for the southern sea otter is approximately 8,400 animals 
(Service 2003).
    The petition to delist the southern sea otter under the ESA, dated 
July 30, 1998, was submitted by Nancy E. Gregg to the National Marine 
Fisheries Service along with four petitions to delist other marine 
mammal species under the ESA: the California sea lion (Zalophus 
californianus), the Pacific harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), the polar 
bear (Ursus maritimus), and the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus 
divergens). Although these four species are protected by the Marine 
Mammal Protection Act, they are not currently listed under the ESA and 
consequently cannot be considered for delisting. The southern sea otter 
is a listed species under the ESA and is under the jurisdiction of the 
Service. Therefore, the National Marine Fisheries Service forwarded the 
petition to delist the southern sea otter to us. The petition, which we 
received on May 13, 1999, requested that we remove the southern sea 
otter from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants.
    Section 4(b)(3)(A) of the ESA requires that we make a finding on 
whether a petition to list, delist, or reclassify a species presents 
substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the 
petitioned action may be warranted. We base the finding on information 
in the petition and its supporting documentation, information in our 
files, and other information available to us at the time the finding is 
made. To the maximum extent practicable, we make this finding within 90 
days of receipt of the petition and promptly publish notice of the 
finding in the Federal Register. If we find that substantial 
information was presented, we are required to commence a review of the 
status of the species promptly, if one has not already been initiated 
(50 CFR 424.14).
    The factors for listing, delisting, or reclassifying species are 
described at 50 CFR 424.11. We may delist a species only if the best 
scientific and commercial data available substantiate that it is 
neither endangered nor threatened for one or more of the following 
reasons: (1) Extinction; (2) recovery; and/or (3) a determination that 
the original data used for classification of the species as endangered 
or threatened were in error.
    In response to the petitioner's request to delist the southern sea 
otter, we sent a letter to the petitioner on June 8, 1999, 
acknowledging our receipt of the petition. We were unable to act upon 
the petition due to the low priority assigned to delisting petitions in 
accordance with our Listing Priority Guidance for Fiscal Years 1998 
through 1999, which was published in the Federal Register on May 8, 
1998 (63 FR 25502). Since 1999, higher priority work has not allowed us 
to examine or to act upon the petition to delist the southern sea 


    The petition offers no information on the population trends or 
status of the southern sea otter to support the proposed administrative 
action. Much of the material offered in support of the petition to 
delist the southern sea otter refers to pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, 
and walruses), marine mammals in general, or the Marine Mammal 
Protection Act. The petition mentions sea otters only in passing, in a 
quote from the April 7, 1981, testimony of C. Dale Snow, who testified 
on behalf of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife before the 
Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and the Environment 
of the House Committee on Fisheries and Wildlife. Mr. Snow's testimony 
was given in the context of congressional hearings on the 
reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The excerpted 
testimony reads as follows: ``(6) Seals, Sea Lions, Polar Bears, 
Walrus, and Sea Otters: If these animals were removed from the [Marine 
Mammal Protection] Act, it might solve Oregon's problems, and probably 
those of several other states. The Act would still afford the desired 
protection for whales and manatees and yet allow management of a 
valuable natural resource.'' Although the petitioner included the full 
text of this testimony with the petition as supporting documentation, 
this remark constitutes its sole mention of sea otters.
    Mr. Snow's testimony relates primarily to the management of marine 
mammals in Oregon under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and focuses 
specifically on pinnipeds and salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) in Oregon. It 
does not provide any information about the status of southern sea 
otters. Southern sea otters do not currently occur in northern 
California or Oregon. Historically, southern sea otters ranged from 
about mid-Baja California, Mexico, to at least northern California 
(Wilson et al. 1991), and possibly as far north as Prince William Sound 
in Alaska (reviewed in Riedman and Estes 1990). Currently, however, 
southern sea otters occur only in central and southern California. The 
mainland range of the southern sea otter extends from about Point 
Conception, Santa Barbara County, to Half Moon Bay, San Mateo County. A 
small experimental colony of southern sea otters also exists at San 
Nicolas Island, Ventura County.
    The petition does not provide a narrative justification for 
delisting the southern sea otter under the ESA. We infer that the 
petitioner advocates delisting the southern sea otter in the belief 
that it would allow for the control of predation on anadromous 
salmonids. In addition to the congressional testimony of Mr. Snow, the 
petitioner cites as supporting information two reports concerning 
anadromous salmonids. The petitioner states: ``These reports clearly 
show that the Federal government's failure to delist these species is 
the reason for the endangerment of the west coast salmon.''
    We have no information to indicate that southern sea otters are 
implicated in the decline of anadromous salmonids as the petitioner 
suggests. Southern sea otters are not known predators of anadromous 
salmonids. The diet of southern sea otters is composed almost entirely 
of nearshore invertebrates (Riedman and Estes 1990). Although sea 
otters of the subspecies Enhydra lutris lutris and E. l. kenyoni 
consume fishes as well as invertebrates in areas of their range in 
Russia and Alaska, predation on fishes in California, where the 
southern sea otter occurs, is extremely rare (reviewed in Riedman and 
Estes 1990).
    Regardless, the effects of predation by a listed species are not a 
relevant consideration in determining whether a species should be 
considered for delisting under the ESA. As noted

[[Page 5863]]

above, we may delist a species only if the best scientific and 
commercial data available substantiate that it is neither endangered 
nor threatened. The petitioner provided no scientific or commercial 
data to substantiate that the southern sea otter is extinct, has 
recovered, or that the original data used to classify the southern sea 
otter as threatened were in error.
    Information in our files, and other information available to us, 
does not support a finding that delisting of the southern sea otter 
should be considered at this time. We recently published a final 
revised recovery plan for the southern sea otter (Service 2003), which 
reviews the current status of the species. Continuing threats to the 
southern sea otter include disease, exposure to environmental 
contaminants, intentional take (shooting), and potential entanglement 
in fishing gear. Oil spills, which could occur at any time, threaten 
the southern sea otter with catastrophic decimation or localized 
extinction (Service 2003). The recovery plan gives recovery criteria 
for the southern sea otter and states that the species will be 
considered for delisting under the ESA when the average population 
level over a 3-year period exceeds 3,090 animals. The most recent 
spring survey recorded 2,505 southern sea otters (U.S. Geological 
Survey, unpublished data), and the latest available 3-year running 
average (for 2002) is only 2,268 animals.


    We have reviewed the petition and its supporting documentation, 
information in our files, and other available information. We find that 
there is not substantial information indicating that delisting of the 
southern sea otter may be warranted.

Information Solicited

    When we find that there is not substantial information indicating 
that the petitioned action may be warranted, initiation of a status 
review is not required by the ESA. However, we regularly assess the 
status of species listed as threatened or endangered and welcome any 
information concerning the status of the southern sea otter. You may 
submit any information at any time to the Field Supervisor, Ventura 
Fish and Wildlife Office (see ADDRESSES).

References Cited

Riedman, M.L. and J.A. Estes. 1990. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris): 
behavior, ecology, and natural history. U.S. Fish and Wildlife 
Service, Biol. Rep. 90(14). 126 pp.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2003. Final Revised Recovery Plan 
for the Southern Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris nereis). Portland, 
Oregon. xi + 165 pp.
U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division. 2003. Spring 
2003 mainland California sea otter survey results. Memorandum from 
B. Hatfield dated 9 June 2003.
Wilson, D. E., M. A. Bogan, R. L. Brownell, Jr., A. M. Burdin, and 
M. K. Maminov. 1991. Geographic variation in sea otters, Enhydra 
lutris. J. Mamm., 72(1):22-36.


    The primary author of this document is Lilian Carswell, Fish and 
Wildlife Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ventura Fish and 
Wildlife Office (see ADDRESSES section).

    Authority: The authority for this action is the Endangered 
Species Act of 1973 as amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.).

    Dated: November 14, 2003.
Steve Williams,
Director, Fish and Wildlife Service.
[FR Doc. 04-2558 Filed 2-5-04; 8:45 am]