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Friday, July 24, 2009

Congress Oughta Protect Otters

Legislation can move slowly in Congress, but there are several wildlife protection bills moving with the speed and grace of a cheetah. Thanks largely to the leadership of House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee Chairwoman Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), and National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the House has already passed measures this year to protect sharks, cranes, rare canines and felines, captive primates, and wild horses and burros.

Seaotter
The Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act would
promote the recovery of these magnificent mammals.

The House will consider another important bill next week to help imperiled sea otters—magnificent creatures of our coastal waters who use tools for feeding and spend hours grooming to keep their fur waterproof by coating it with skin oil. Once nearly exterminated by fur trappers, sea otters made a comeback in the last century but are still listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

H.R. 556, the Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act, was introduced by longtime animal protection champion Representative Sam Farr (D-Calif.). The bill reconstitutes a team of scientists under the Endangered Species Act to monitor and promote the recovery of this threatened marine mammal and authorizes funding for scientific research to support this purpose.

The legislation could not come at a more critical time, as a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey shows that the sea otter population along California’s coast experienced the most alarming decline in a decade. Lab tests show the otters are dying off from bacteria, viruses, and parasites, coming from urban sewage and agricultural runoff that pollutes creeks and coastal waters.

While Congress is more than justified in passing laws to protect a single species—the African Elephant Conservation Act, for example—Farr’s bill does more than just protect sea otters. As a keystone species, the otters play a vitally important role in maintaining the health of California’s central coast marine ecosystem. Protecting sea otters will also protect the coastal ocean as a healthy and productive environment capable of supporting innumerable other marine species in addition to fishing, recreation, and tourism—industries valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Like polar bears in the Arctic, sea otters can sound the alarm for larger problems. They are the canaries in the marine coalmine, and Congress should heed the warning by passing H.R. 556.

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