|For Immediate Release, June 24, 2021
Federal Report Acknowledges Low Polar Bear Numbers
Lawsuit Prompts Release of Updated Polar Bear, Sea Otter Assessments
WASHINGTON— In response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Biden administration today released long-overdue population reports for polar bears in Alaska and sea otters in California.
Today’s stock assessment report is a formal acknowledgment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population could have a minimum of 780 bears. The Service’s last stock assessment report, issued in 2010, put that population at about 1,526 animals, though other research suggested it was as low as 900 animals.
The southern Beaufort Sea bears — the world’s most imperiled polar bear population — are threatened by proposed oil and gas drilling in the Western Arctic and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They’re suffering from poor body condition and reduced reproductive performance because of climate change, today’s stock assessment report says.
“This report is an acknowledgement that polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea are in deep trouble, and the Biden administration should take heed,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director at the Center. “Climate change has polar bears on the ropes, and they desperately need protection from oil industry pollution. If we’re going to have any chance of saving these animals and their sea-ice home, Biden officials have to block oil drilling in the Arctic.”
The Center and other groups have challenged those drilling projects in court.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also released new population estimates for California sea otters and polar bears in the Chukchi/Bering Seas. The agency finds that the Chukchi/Bering Sea polar bear population, also threatened by climate change, consists of roughly 2,000 bears. The California sea otter population stands at about 2,962 otters.
Changing sea otter populations in California could also complicate ExxonMobil’s current push to restart its three dormant offshore drilling platforms near Santa Barbara.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to prepare stock assessment reports for all marine mammals under its jurisdiction, including polar bears, sea otters, walruses and manatees. Despite this clear directive, the agency had not updated stock assessments for years, and some haven’t been updated in more than a decade.
The Center sued the federal government in February for failing to update population analyses for two stocks of polar bears, Pacific walruses, three stocks of northern sea otters in Alaska, the southern sea otter stock in California and two stocks of West Indian manatees around Florida and Puerto Rico.
Accurate stock assessments are essential to the management of marine mammal populations and must be based on the best scientific information available.
The stock assessment reports serve to protect marine mammals by analyzing threats and setting sustainable levels of human-caused serious injury and mortality to marine mammals. They also guide management actions for commercial fisheries, oil and gas activities, military activities, coastal development and other activities that may harm marine mammals.