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Defending Sea Otter Recovery in Southern California

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

Case Overview

Conservation and wildlife groups, represented by Earthjustice, are defending a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to end a failed policy of trying to exclude sea otters from their Southern California habitat—a so-called “no-otter zone”—by relocating otters to other areas. An industry group, the California Sea Urchin Commission, has filed a lawsuit challenging the federal decision to end the backward management policy.

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 fell short of expectations 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.

But that decision is now being challenged by the California Sea Urchin Commission, an organization that represents urchin harvesters and views sea otters as competitors. While sea otters do enjoy urchins, they also eat clams, mussels, mollusks, crustaceans and snails. Also, their fondness for eating urchins and other invertebrates helps keep these populations in check and prevents them from mowing down kelp forest habitat.

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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Case Updates

August 6, 2013 | In the News: San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center

Groups Will Fight Industry Lawsuit Seeking to Eliminate Sea Otters From Southern CA

Conservation and wildlife groups will defend the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to end a failed sea otter translocation policy that relocated otters to San Nicolas Island and established a “no-otter zone” off the coast of Southern California. The program, which failed to establish a viable population around the island, also resulted in the death of countless sea otters that attempted to swim back to their waters of origin.

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