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Judges Agree: They Otter Be Free

Fishing industry groups wanted to revive a harmful program that excluded otters from parts of their coastal habitat—but Earthjustice fought back.

Fishing industry groups wanted to revive a harmful program that excluded otters from parts of their coastal habitat—but Earthjustice fought back.

Menno Schaefer/Shutterstock

California sea otters can keep swimming toward a full recovery. For the second time in two years, a federal judge has upheld the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to end a harmful “No Otter Zone” along the California coast. Fishing industry groups wanted to revive this ill-advised program, which was supposed to exclude the already threatened otters from parts of their historic range, but Earthjustice intervened in the case on behalf of the marine mammals.

California sea otters were put on the endangered species list back in 1977. Once numbering almost 16,000 individuals, the California sea otter’s three-year population average was just 2,792 in 2012. Otter numbers have recently begun to bounce back—with 3,272 identified in 2016—but the population is nowhere near its historic high. This steep decline in population means trouble—not just for the otters, but also for California and Pacific Northwest coastal ecosystems.

A female adult sea otter swims with her baby in a kelp forest off the coast of Big Sur, California.
A female adult sea otter swims with her baby in a kelp forest off the coast of Big Sur, California.

Sea otters are a keystone species—the lynchpin of ecosystems. When otters feed on shellfish, particularly sea urchins, they control the population of these species. Otherwise, urchins could consume all of the giant seaweed, or kelp, in the otter’s coastal habitat. Besides protecting coastal areas from storm surges, kelp is also beneficial as a major source of food and shelter for other organisms. Certain crabs and abalone depend on kelp for food, while many types of fish use kelp forests to hide from predators. Sea lions and seals feed on the fish that live in the kelp forests, and grey whales have even been observed in these kelp safe havens, most likely hiding from predatory killer whales. Without sea otters to keep sea urchin numbers in check, the entire ecosystem could collapse.

As well as being the glue that holds coastal ecosystems together, otters also help mitigate the effects of climate change. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased by 40 percent since the start of the industrial revolution, causing global temperatures to increase. Removing CO2 from the atmosphere can help reduce the rate of this global warming. The kelp forests otters protect are carbon-sequestering powerhouses; the kelp plants absorb large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. According to a 2012 study, healthy, otter-protected kelp forests can absorb up to 12 times more CO2 than unprotected kelp.

In this video from the Hakai Institute, eminent marine biologist Jane Watson explains why kelp is so important to so many species.
Courtesy of Grant Callegari/Hakai Institute

That’s why Earthjustice is vigorously defending sea otter recovery efforts and working to put the ill-conceived “No Otter Zone” firmly in the past, where it belongs. The “No Otter Zone” was part of a Fish and Wildlife Service program, started in the late 1980s, to translocate sea otters to a new offshore island habitat, while also keeping them out of Southern California waters where they had historically lived in order to appease commercial fishing groups. In the early 2000s, the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded repeatedly that the “No Otter Zone” was preventing otters from expanding their natural range, which the otters must be able to do in order to recover as a species.

In 2013, the service finally determined that the translocation program had failed, harming more otters than it helped, but shellfish harvesters challenged the decision in two separate lawsuits. Earthjustice intervened in both cases, and in September 2015, a federal district court judge ruled that the agency was right to end the otter exclusion. The agency’s decision was upheld by another federal district court judge this week.

A robust sea otter population helps everyone. Fishermen benefit from healthy fish nurseries and coastal ecosystems, neighborhoods benefit from a natural barrier against storm surges and sea level rise and the planet benefits from reduced levels of atmospheric CO2. Protecting sea otters is a no-brainer—it’s in our best interests to make sure these threatened mammals reap the full benefits of federal protection.

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