Shellfish Industry Lobs Bomb at Sea Otters

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – The federal government’s termination of a sea otter management zone in Southern California will be disastrous for the shellfish industry, as otters are voracious eaters of urchins, abalone and lobster, commercial fishermen claim in court.
     The California Sea Urchin Commission and three other industry groups sued the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for its termination of a program enacted by Congress in 1986 that created an “otter-free” management zone south of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County.
     Killing the program “will lead to a population approaching 300 otters residing within the management zone within a decade. Consequently, sustainable shellfish and other marine fisheries in Southern California will be severely compromised if not destroyed,” the fishermen say in the federal complaint.
     Plaintiffs include Other plaintiffs the California Abalone Association, the California Lobster and Trap Fishermen’s Association, and Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara.
     The sea otter was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1977, due to habitat loss, hunting, and risks from a Southern California oil spill. To protect the otters, the Marine Mammal Commission proposed relocating California sea otters.
     But “the fishing community was greatly opposed to expanding the otter’s range, reasonably fearing that the otter would destroy shellfish and other marine resources,” the complaint states.
     Congress enacted Public Law 99-625 “to balance the otter’s recovery needs with the interests of fishermen,” the industry groups say.
     The plan moved an experimental population of 140 southern sea otters from Monterey Bay to San Nicolas Island.
     “The plan authorized San Nicolas Island as the home for the experimental population, and defined the island, along with its near-shore waters, as the translocation zone. The rest of the California Bight, south of Point Conception to the Mexican border, the Service designated as the otter-free management zone,” the commission says in the complaint.
     “The dual purpose of the ‘management zone’ was to make containment of the experimental population within the translocation zone easier, and ‘to prevent, to the maximum extent feasible, conflict with other fishery resources within the management zone by the experimental population.'”
     Fish & Wildlife was to use non-lethal means to capture sea otters in the management zone and return them to the translocation zone. Fishermen who accidentally killed otters that swam into or past the management zone could not be federally prosecuted, according to the complaint.
     But the San Nicolas population did not thrive; many otters died or did not stay at the island. The Service stopped removing otters from the management zone in 1993 and issued a revised recovery plan in 2003, recommending that the management zone no longer be maintained.
     On Dec. 19, 2012, the Service decided to terminate the translocation program, finding that it failed because only 17 otters remained on San Nicolas Island due to emigration, according to the complaint.
     The program’s termination means that fishermen can again be held liable for accidentally killing, or “taking,” otters in Southern California waters. It will reduce populations of invertebrate prey species in the waters, which will hurt the plaintiffs, the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs say they are “gravely concerned with the negative impacts of otter predation upon shellfish. Within the last decade, the vast majority of sea urchin harvest in California has occurred in the otter management zone. The Channel Islands sea urchin resource alone is responsible for 68 percent of California’s harvest.
     “Sea urchin is a favorite of the otter. When an otter moves into a new area, it generally will devour the urchin population before selecting other prey. A significant body of research has established that, once the otter moves into sea urchin territory, the commercial urchin resource will collapse owing to the otter’s voracious predation,” according to the complaint.
     The California Lobster and Trap Fishermen’s Association says it is “gravely concerned about unregulated otter expansion and the loss of the incidental take exemption, due to otter consumption of lobster and the risks that traps will unintentionally ‘take’ the otter.”
     The fishermen claim that the Fish & Wildlife Service cannot legally terminate the program because it was enacted by Congress, and Fish & Wildlife did not receive authorization from Congress to kill it.
     “Although Public Law 99-625 provides the Service discretion in whether to commence a translocation program, the Public Law provides no authority to the Service to cease such program once it has been initiated,” the complaint states.
     Friends of the Sea Otter defended Fish & Wildlife in a statement. A spokesman for the environmental group called the industry lawsuit “just another attempt by a segment of the fishing community to prevent sea otter recovery to advance their narrow economic self-interest, even at the expense of the benefits to the California coastal ecosystem.”
     Jim Curland, advocacy program director for Friends of the Sea Otter, added: “As it has many times before, Friends of the Sea Otter will again take all actions necessary to meet this legal threat.”
     Defendants include the Department of Interior; Rachel Jacobson, acting assistant secretary for Fish & Wildlife & Parks; and Daniel M. Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
     Plaintiffs ask that the termination of the program be declared null and void.
     They are represented by Damien M. Schiff with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

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