Ninth Circuit Upholds Termination of "No Otter Zone"

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Ninth Circuit Upholds Termination of "No Otter Zone"
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Source: Environmental Defense Center

In a major victory for threatened southern sea otters, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals [Thursday] issued a ruling denying a challenge by commercial fishing organizations to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decision that has restored protections for sea otters in Southern California. The Environmental Defense Center (EDC), The Otter Project and Los Angeles Waterkeeper intervened in the case on behalf of the FWS.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the environmental groups that the fishing industry’s position makes “no sense whatsoever” because it would require the FWS to implement a program after determining it was “counter-productive and harmed, rather than protected, threatened or endangered species.” This ruling affirmed two lower court decisions which upheld the FWS’s 2012 decision to end the “no-otter zone.”

“We applaud this important ruling, in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to terminate the failed ‘no-otter zone’—a program that harmed the very species it was meant to protect,” said Maggie Hall, Staff Attorney with the Environmental Defense Center which represents The Otter Project and Los Angeles Waterkeeper in this case. “This decision will allow the threatened southern sea otters to reinhabit their historic range in southern California, and we look forward to welcoming them back.”

The “no-otter zone” was created in 1987 as part of a larger effort to recover threatened sea otters, by establishing a thriving otter population at San Nicolas Island, and in exchange, excluding otters from an area extending from Pt. Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border. Unfortunately, this plan immediately proved deadly to otters. Of the 140 sea otters moved to San Nicolas Island, all but 11 either disappeared or died trying to return to their home waters or during translocation.

In response to a lawsuit filed by EDC and The Otter Project, the FWS ultimately terminated the failed “no-otter zone” back in 2012. This important FWS decision allowed sea otters to begin to regain a foothold in their natural range in Southern California – an outcome vital to the recovery of the keystone species.

“The fishing groups were insisting on an unnatural, unhealthy system serving their own narrow commercial interests. With the Court’s ruling, otters will slowly return and change the system back to the healthier and more complete ecosystem it once was, with bigger kelp forests and more fin-fish,” said Steve Shimek, Executive Director of The Otter Project.

“Our marine ecosystem has been out of balance for decades. Removing the ‘no-otter zone,’ restoring kelp forests, and enforcing marine protected areas are critical actions for reversing this degradation,” said Bruce Reznik, Executive Director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper. “The science shows that our fisheries will be much more robust once our habitats are protected and the natural balance of the food chain is restored.”

Recent estimates report the southern sea otter population at roughly 3,186 otters in a range that once supported 12,000 to 16,000 otters. The species is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Sea otter recovery is impossible with the “no-otter zone” in place.

The case name is California Sea Urchin Commission, et al. v. Bean, et al. (9th Cir. 2018). You can read the full decision online.

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The Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties.  Since 1977, EDC has empowered community based organizations to advance environmental protection.  Program areas include protecting coast and ocean resources, open spaces and wildlife, and human and environmental health.  Learn more about EDC at www.EnvironmentalDefenseCenter.org.

The Otter Project protects our watersheds and coastal oceans for the benefit of California sea otters and humans through science-based policy and advocacy. Founded in 1998, The Otter Project has worked to improve nearshore ocean health and resolve the barriers to sea otter recovery.  Learn more about The Otter Project at www.otterproject.org.

Founded in 1993, Los Angeles Waterkeeper’s mission is to protect and restore Santa Monica Bay, San Pedro Bay, and adjacent waters through enforcement, fieldwork, and community action. We work to achieve this goal through litigation and regulatory programs that ensure water quality protections in waterways throughout L.A. County. LA Waterkeeper’s Litigation & Advocacy, Marine, and Water Quality teams conduct interconnected projects that serve this mission. Learn more about LA Waterkeeper at www.lawaterkeeper.org.

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edwardchapeau Mar 03, 2018 12:28 PM
Ninth Circuit Upholds Termination of "No Otter Zone"

Good court decision. It's almost a miracle that the otter population has recovered so well: they were down to a "handful" of individuals. I've often wondered if the current population is vulnerable genetically, given that they are all descended from the handful that escaped the fur trappers.

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