Court ruling may help California sea otter recovery

Southern California sea otters get some love from a federal court. Photo courtesy USFWS.

Federal judge backs USFWS decision to end a ‘no otter’ zone in Southern California

Staff Report

California sea otters may have a better chance of expanding south along the coast after a federal judge last week backed a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to end a program that removed otters from areas south of Point Conception.

The “no-otter zone” was established by Congress in 1986 during the early days of political meddling with the Endangered Species Act, in response to complaints from fishermen that moving otters to a new location could interfere with their fishing activities.

The “no-otter zone” provision removed the sea otters from their natural habitat and gave fishing groups exemptions from Endangered Species Act protections. It was created with good intentions, as part of a plan by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to translocate sea otters to San Nicolas Island.

At the time the agency suggested that the translocation program would help southern sea otters, which are protected as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act, to gain protection should a catastrophic event like an oil spill threaten the otter population along parts of the California coast. The translocation program ultimately failed because not enough otters remained at San Nicolas Island to establish a viable population.

Many relocated otters swam back to their waters of origin; others died from being captured or transported. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service subsequently determined that enforcing the no-otter zone would hurt sea otters’ protection and recovery, and the agency decided in 2003 that allowing otters to expand to their natural, historical range south of Point Conception would be necessary to achieve recovery of the species.

After years of scientific study, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to end the “no-otter zone” program in 2012, and several fishing industry groups then challenged the decision. Earthjustice, on behalf of Friends of the Sea Otter, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, and Center for Biological Diversity, intervened to help defend the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision.

“The ‘no-otter zone’ was part of a plan meant to promote the recovery of California sea otters, but it turned out to be an obstacle to recovery,” said Andrea Treece, Earthjustice attorney. “Otters are a vital part of our coastal ecosystem … otters need habitat and the kelp forest habitat needs otters. The decision today helps the sea otters and coastal habitat by allowing otters to expand their population southward without human interference.”

“If threatened sea otters are going to be recovered in California, we need programs that encourage that recovery, not programs that hinder it,” said Kim Delfino, Director of California Programs for Defenders of Wildlife. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized that the ‘no-otter zone’ would do more harm than good to sea otters by keeping them from vital habitat, and the judge’s decision reaffirms that fact.”

“We applaud the Court for rejecting this attempt by commercial fishing interests to decrease protection for imperiled marine mammals who are viewed as competition for the industry because their natural diet includes valuable shellfish,” said Ralph Henry, Director of Litigation at The Humane Society of the United States.

The population of California sea otters before fur traders arrived is believed to have been between 14,000 and 16,000. But in 2012 the animals’ three-year population average was only 2,792.


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