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US Fish and Wildlife Service Restores Protections for Southland Otters

In a victory for a threatened species, a Los Angeles federal judge approved a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision that restores protections for Southland sea otters, according to court papers obtained Wednesday.

The ruling Friday by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee stems from one of two cases to flow from a 2012 decision by the wildlife service to officially terminate a “no-otter zone” that had been established in 1987 in an attempt to balance sea otter protections with fisheries protections.

The intent of the 1987 action was to establish a thriving otter population at San Nicolas Island, and in exchange, to exclude otters from an area extending from Point Conception to the Mexican border.

Unfortunately, the plan proved deadly to otters who were either killed during translocation efforts or died trying to swim back to their natural habitats, and so the wildlife agency terminated the plan.

The agency’s action terminating the “no-otter zone” came in response to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles by the Environmental Defense Center and the Otter Project. The 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, according to environmental groups.

“Our marine ecosystem has been out of balance for decades,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper, which is also party to the case.

“Removing the `no-otter zone,’ restoring kelp forests, and establishing marine protected areas are critical actions for reversing this degradation,” he said. “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.”

The southern sea otter population numbers around 2,800 in a range that once supported 12,000 to 16,000 sea otters and is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Reznik said.

Beginning in 1987, when the zone was established, the wildlife service moved 140 southern sea otters to San Nicolas Island, the most remote of California’s Channel Islands, in an attempt to establish a reserve population and protect the small and struggling mainland population from a catastrophic event, such as an oil spill.

Shellfish fishermen, the offshore oil industry and the Navy objected to the plan and as a result the “no-otter zone” — officially called the “management zone” — was established.

However, the relocation plan failed immediately when all but about 11 of the 140 otters swam away from San Nicolas Island and back to their home waters or perished. Yet, despite the failure, the zone stayed in place and wandering otters were trapped and deported for many years.

The failure of the wildlife service to protect the otters led to the lawsuit filed by the Otter Project and EDC.

“We applaud this important ruling, in which the federal court has again upheld the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to terminate the failed `no- otter zone,’ allowing the threatened southern sea otters to re-inhabit their historic range in southern California,” said Linda Krop, chief counsel with the EDC, which represents the Otter Project and Los Angeles Waterkeeper in the case.

Southland Otters

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