Rapid Decline Of UK Sea
Otter Puzzles Experts -
Endangered Species List Booms
By Charles Clover - Environment Editor
A drastic decline in the sea otter, one of the animal kindom's best-loved extroverts, has surprised scientists compiling the red list of endangered species, published this week by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Each year thousands of tourists watch the sea otter swimming on its back and using its chest as a dining table in the harbour at Monterey, California, where John Steinbeck set his novel Cannery Row.
The sardines which the cannery, now a museum, used to can, have been fished out by the shoal, now it is the otter which is in decline, although American scientists cannot or are reluctant to pinpoint the connection with fisheries.
The IUCN's otter specialist group said the mammal was declining at up a rate of upto four per cent off the Californian coast and at 90 per cent in Alaska. It is extinct already in Japan and at risk from poaching in Russia. The sea otter, absent from the 1996 red list, could be the victim of oil pollution, predation by killer whales and "conflict with fisheries and incidental kills". However, there is no conclusive theory.
Craig Hilton-Taylor, of the IUCN's Red List programme, based in Cambridge, said: "It doesn't add up. Something is going on behind the scenes." The red list showed that a quarter of mammal species, one in eight bird species, a third of freshwater fish species and half the plants studied were now under threat of extinction.
The number of albatross species threatened was up from three to 16. The wandering albatross, other species of albatross and large petrel eat the bait from hooks set by long-line fishing vessels before they sink and are dragged to their deaths. Two fish species are newly listed as critically endangered: the common sawfish, once abundant in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic but extremely vulnerable to by-catch in other fisheries, and the Brazilian guitar fish.
The whale shark and the flapnosed hound shark were on the list for the first time. Britain has two new species listed as threatened: the small-eyed ray, recorded in the Bristol Channel, which is caught as a by-catch by trawlers, and a Cornish moss, ditrichum cornubicum, which grows only on copper mine waste.
The number of critically endangered primates has risen from 13 to 19. The orang-utan, for example, moved from being regarded as vulnerable to endangered, while the Sumatran orang-utan (a sub-species) was listed as critically endangered.
Other mammals which have moved into the critically endangered category include the Tamaraw, a smaller Asian relative of the water buffalo, the woolly spider monkey and the northern muriqui, both from Brazil, and the Bonin fruit bat, from Japan. Some 128 bird species have died out over the past 500 years and more than 100 since 1800, which is 50 times the natural rate.
Conservationists believe 500 species will become extinct over the next 100 years if present trends continue. Among other trends in the report, to be discussed by an IUCN congress in Amman next week, was a decline in tortoises and freshwater turtles due to exploitation for food and medicinal use.

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