Sea otter fans are applauding the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ March 1 decision to uphold the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2012 decision to end its failed program to establish an otter population at San Nicolas Island while excluding them from coastal waters between Point Conception and the Mexican border. That “no-otter zone” was established in 1987 to mitigate the otter’s impact on commercial fisheries in the region as growing numbers of the marine mammal (pictured) repopulated their historic range after being hunted to near-extinction by fur traders a century ago. However, all but 11 of the 140 otters trapped and transported to the island either disappeared or died, rendering the program a counterproductive threat to the federally protected species.
The program — Public Law 99-625, which was written after long negotiations between federal biologists, otter advocates, commercial fishermen, recreational divers, and the oil industry in an attempt to create a coexistence of fisheries and otters — also protected fishermen who accidentally harmed otters during legal fishing operations, according to Steve Rebuck, a former commercial abalone diver. “This now is off the table and fishermen are at risk,” he said, adding, “California will continue to lose fisheries to sea otters as they expand their range.”
Represented by Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center (EDC), Steve Shimek, executive director of The Otter Project, said in a statement, “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.”
Recent estimates report the southern sea otter population at roughly 3,186 otters in a range that once supported as many as 16,000, according to an EDC statement. The species is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.