There’ll be another two weeks to comment on plans to let sea otters swim in Santa Barbara Channel waters with all the protections they are afforded as a threatened species, as a request for an extension by the California Sea Urchin Commission was granted this week by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which will now accept comments until November 21. The proposed plan would officially declare the 24-year-long “translocation program” — in which otters that swam south of Point Conception lost their strictest federal protections and were supposed to be moved to San Nicolas Island — as a failure. Fishermen fear that voracious rafts of otters will suddenly decimate the shellfish industry, but environmentalists say that their expansion into Southern California waters will be gradual and greatly enhance the overall underwater habitat for all species.
The latter group includes The Otter Project, which sued with the help of Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center to push this failure declaration along. They’re hoping to have it all finished by December 2012, and worry that unexplained delays such as this could push that deadline out. “The settlement agreement between the FWS, The Otter Project, and Environmental Defense Center prescribed when the Service would reopen the public process (October 2011) and when a final decision would be made (December 2012),” said Steve Shimek of The Otter Project. “The commission was an ‘intervener’ in our lawsuit and was well aware of all dates and deadlines. The commission’s request could reflect their disorganization or a desire to unreasonably delay the process.”
But David Goldberg, the executive director of the California Sea Urchin Commission, said that his organization asked for a delay for more practical reasons. “We felt that, under the circumstances, it would take a considerable time to read the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, especially for our fishermen who work four days a week,” said Goldberg in an email this week. “We needed time to gather supporting documents and find research reports and to formulate comments. We also put forth a new alternative not considered by the Fish & Wildlife Service. All that takes time and a month’s period vanishes quite readily when compelled to make scientific arguments and provide supporting peer reviewed documentation. We do not have anyone on staff or waiting in the wings who can provide these services. Hence the request for additional time.”
Those who’d like like to learn more or submit comments can check out fws.gov/ventura.