Will sea otters disappear from Japanese aquariums?

Floating in the sea, a furry face munching on shellfish-just imaging a sea otter can be soothing.

But there are now fewer than 20 sea otters in captivity nationwide, down drastically from a peak of 122 when the critters were widely popular in the 1980s and 1990s.

There are fears that at some point in the not-too-distant future, there could be no sea otters left in the nation's aquariums.

With sea ottter fans across the country pining for the birth of the next generation, I visited a Tokyo aquarium that is home to a new couple.

The potential lovebirds-male Roizu and female Miru-reside at Sunshine Aquarium in Higashi Ikebukuro. Eight-year-old Roizu arrived March 21 from Toba Aquarium in Mie Prefecture.

I love sea otters, so I felt a smile grow on my face as soon as I laid eyes on Roizu and Miru swimming playfully.

"With things like this, breeding should go well," I said casually to Masashi Fukui, the handler in charge of the pair.

"It all depends on how compatible they are, so we don't know for sure yet," he answered with unexpected caution.

Apparently, Roizu hates to be alone and sticks close by Miru, who is three years his senior and has beautiful white fur. But Miru does not approach her potential mate very often and, being placid, she sometime finds her meals stolen by Roizu.

She enthusiastically devoured her shrimp and shellfish, but Miru may not be a "carnivorous woman." Compatibility could be an issue with this couple.

The first sea otter arrived at a domestic aquarium in 1982, and only two years later a baby was born at Toba Aquarium, setting off an explosion in popularity.

Sea otters appeared on commercials and posters, and NHK's "Minna no Uta" (Everyone's songs) even featured a sea otter song. The boom peaked in 1994 with 122 sea otters at 28 facilities nationwide. But the major oil spill off Alaska in 1989 and other factors have sharply reduced the animal's numbers in the wild.

Capturing sea otters in their natural habitats is currently prohibited in the United States and Russia, and it has been impossible to import new animals for about the past 10 years.

Sea otters can reproduce from age 2 to 15 and have an average lifespan of 15-20 years. Several sea otters have died of old age recently, including a male at Toba Aquarium that passed away earlier this month.

That death left 18 sea otters in captivity at 11 facilities nationwide, less than one-sixth of the peak population.

Many things remain unclear about the lives of sea otters, and there have only been a few successful breedings in captivity, such as at Asamushi Aquarium in Aomori and Marine World Uminonakamichi in Fukuoka.

Miru and her large, dewy eyes arrived in Ikebukuro in 2003 after being captured in Russia.

She gave birth four times after mating with her former partner, who died two years ago, but two babies were stillborn and two died soon after birth. There are big hopes for the current pairing.

While pondering the situation, I noticed a person who was staring even more intently into the tank than me.

Miwa Kato, a 45-year-old homemaker from Toshima Ward, holds an annual pass to the aquarium and comes almost every day. She said she has visited all the domestic facilities that house sea otters and posts about them on her website. She has even travelled to Alaska and Hokkaido to see them in the wild.

Kato said she was worried about the state of the nation's sea otters. "They could disappear from Japan some day," she said.

The same difficulties experienced with sea otters are seen with other popular zoo animals such as polar bears and gorillas, so domestic facilities move the animals around in a planned manner, hoping for successful breeding through appropriate pairings. Still, births are rare due to factors such as old age or poor compatibility.

Oga Aquarium GAO in Akita Prefecture successfully bred polar bears in 2012 and the number of cheetahs, red pandas and other animals is said to have increased.

However, the situation with sea otters is more serious.

According to Kaoru Kayama, a veterinarian at Izu Mito Sea Paradise in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, who cared for the first sea otters in Japan: "Maybe it's because the environment is different than the ocean, but the second and third generations tend not to give birth. Even if they do, the babies are often weaker than those born in the wild and are difficult to raise."

That made the pair in front of me seem all the more precious. Do your best, Roizu and Miru.