Aug. 03--A lawsuit filed by a group representing multiple California commercial
fishing groups is contending the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's decision earlier this
year to put an end to Southern California's "otter-free" zone was not properly
Pacific Legal Foundation, representing commercial fishing members of sea urchin, abalone and lobsters along Southern California's coast alleges in the July 31 suit that a Congress-approved statute dating back to 1986 was illegally terminated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the impending spread of sea otters south could devastate their fisheries.
"Our argument is, they don't have the authority to terminate the management zone," Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Jonathan Wood said Friday.
But U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say they have done more than enough to show the program is no longer a viable option.
"This decision to terminate the program came after a decades-long process," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Stephanie Weagley. "We evaluated the program, the alternatives, and the environmental consequences, and received around 27,000 public comments on the matter, all of which were published for the public before a decision was made."
The statute, Public Law 99-625, was seen as a compromise at the time between Southern California's commercial fishermen and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which was creating a plan they hoped would help with sea otter recovery, transplanting a colony of sea otters from Northern California's coast to San Nicolas Island.
"They established a colony outside of their existing range in Northern California to protect them against the threat of a local natural disaster or human-caused event like an oil spill in their area," Weagley said.
While environmentalists lauded the efforts, commercial fishermen saw the migration of the species as a threat to their livelihood. For years, with the sea otters and their voracious appetites removed from the ecosystem, shellfish fisheries along the Southern California coast had thrived.
"Once they start moving en masse south, none of the shell fisheries will survive," California Sea Urchin Commission vice chairman Dan Williams said Friday.
As a compromise, Congress approved a statue in 1986 that allowed the creation of the San Nicolas colony while establishing an "otter-free" zone along the coast from Santa Barbara's Point Conception to the Mexican border. According to the statute, every sea otter found inside the zone was to be relocated back to the island or north of Point Conception.
In its first decade, the plan proved costly and ineffective, as half of the original 140 otters transported to San Nicolas Island immediately swam back to California, and many others died from the stresses of the capture-and-release process.
After two otters died during relocation in 1993, the program was suspended. Over the next 20 years, Fish and Wildlife worked to eliminate the "otter-free zone," passing its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in December 2012 that allowed sea otters to once again roam freely in Southern California waters.
But the Pacific Legal Group contends the decision to remove the sea otter management area is not the Fish and Wildlife Service's to make.
"The statute gave them discretion on whether or not to create a program, but
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