The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits take (harassing, hunting, capturing, or killing) of sea otters in Alaska, with limited exceptions*. Anyone operating a vessel or conducting other activities in sea otter habitat should understand how to avoid unlawfully taking sea otters.
Sea otters are found in nearshore waters up to 91 meters deep (300 feet, 50 fathoms) throughout their range, which includes nearly all of coastal Southeast, Southcentral, and Southwest Alaska. Vessels operating in sea otter habitat run the risk of disturbing sea otters, which is considered harassment. Vessels also can injure or kill sea otters by striking them with the boat propeller or hull. Boat collisions are a common cause of death for sea otters, especially in Kachemak Bay, Alaska.
Sea otters in many parts of Alaska are used to human activities and may not show a clear reaction to an approaching vessel. However, close encounters with humans can still cause stress to otters in addition to posing a risk of collision. Female otters with pups are especially sensitive to disturbance, which can interrupt patterns of feeding, resting, and grooming that are critical to the health of pups and their mothers. Sea otters in locations with limited human activity may also be highly sensitive to disturbance.
You can minimize your chances of accidentally harming sea otters in Alaska waters by following the guidelines below.
*Exceptions to the prohibition of take includes harvest of sea otters by coastal-dwelling Alaska Native people for the purposes of creating and selling authentic native articles of handicrafts and clothing, which is lawful under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Guidance for Vessel Operations
- Look ahead. While operating vessels in sea otter habitat, scan the water surface ahead of the boat vigilantly for otters. Sea otters are difficult to spot in choppy water conditions and areas with kelp. If you are boating with another person, have them help search for otters from the bow or other clear vantage point. You may spot individual otters, mother-pup pairs, or rafts with many animals.
Slow down. Travel at reduced speeds in areas with high densities of sea otters to avoid potential disturbance and collision. Slow down when you see an otter or group of otters, and do not assume that otters will dive and get out of the way of your boat. It is difficult for an otter to judge a boat’s speed and direction, and sea otters sleep very deeply and may not hear or see an approaching boat. Sick sea otters and otter pups less than three months old may not be able to dive or move out of the way. Even if a sea otter is alert, capable, and does dive or swim away when your vessel approaches, the action of knowingly maintaining speed and staying your course would be considered harassment.
Steer clear. Give all otters a wide berth when passing by them, and take extra precaution to avoid approaching and disturbing rafts of otters and mother-pup pairs. If a sea otter reacts to your presence by abruptly diving, swimming away, or looking at your boat in a startled or agitated manner, you have gotten too close to the otter. The Service recommends staying 100 meters away from individual otters, 200 meters away from mother-pup pairs, and 500 meters away from rafts of otters when possible.
- Respect groups. If you encounter a group of sea otters, do not pass between individuals. Go around the entire group with a wide buffer.
Never pursue. Do not operate a vessel at any rate of speed heading directly at one or more sea otters. It is illegal to pursue or chase sea otters. Do not single out or surround sea otters.
Note conditions. When visibility is poor due to weather or darkness, travel at slower speeds to reduce the likelihood of injury to sea otters. Be aware that during poor weather conditions, sea otters are more likely to form large rafts to rest in protected bays and coves. Avoid these rafts and take extra caution to avoid disturbing them, especially if visibility is reduced.
Consider non-swimmers. Sea otters may haul out and rest along the shoreline, on docks, and on ice. Avoid approaching otters on shore or another platform to prevent disturbance that may interrupt behavior and cause the otter(s) to enter the water. Stay 100 meters away from otters on shore or other platforms when possible.