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Court Ruling Means Greater Protections for California Sea Otters

Victory: Judge’s ruling upholds Fish and Wildlife Service decision to end unsuccessful program
Sea otter dines on a crab.

Sea otters are key to the health of California’s kelp forests and the many other marine species—including shellfish and finfish—that depend on kelp forest habitat.

Jean Edouard Rozey / Shutterstock
September 21, 2015
San Francisco —

A judge last Friday upheld the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to end its program that relocated California sea otters from a significant portion of southern California coastal waters, important to the survival of the species, to an island off the coast with the goal of creating a second healthy population. As a part of this program, the Fish and Wildlife Service created a “no-otter zone” 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.

After years of scientific study, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to end its “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.”

“This is a major victory for Southern California’s sea otters, which are now free to go wherever they like,” said Miyoko Sakashita with the Center for Biological Diversity. “These iconic animals deserve a real shot at recovery and this decision will help pave the way.”

“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.

“Friends of the Sea Otter (FSO) is pleased that the courts have once again ruled in favor of sea otter recovery and environmental protection. Since 1968, FSO has argued for all actions necessary to promote sea otter population growth and range expansion,” said Frank Reynolds, Director of Programs and Development at Friends of the Sea Otter. “With this decision, sea otters are one step closer to full recovery, with associated benefits for the entire marine environment.”

Read the court docment.

BACKGROUND

Congress established the “no-otter zone” (Public Law 99-625) in 1986 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 “no-otter zone” was established by Congress in response to complaints from fishermen that moving otters to a new location could interfere with their fishing activities.

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.

That decision was challenged by fishing industry groups.

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.