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 once created, it does not give them the authority to stop the management zone once it has been established," Wood said. "They need to take their finding to Congress who can make the decision to end the no otter zone."
According to the Fish and Wildlife's 2012 executive summary on the decision to abandon the relocation program, the agency holds that the statute's mandate to remove sea otters from Southern California only applied while the program was in place.
By ruling to abandon the relocation program in its entirety, Fish and Wildlife officials contend they eliminated all components of the rule, "including the requirements to remove sea otters from San Nicolas Island and from the management zone following a determination that the program had failed," the report stated.
Backing the Fish and Wildlife Service is environmental group Friends of the Sea Otter, which is planning to file a motion to intervene in the lawsuit.
"This program that the fishing community has been fighting to keep has been proven to be ineffective for the recovery of sea otters, but if it continues, it will protect their economic interest in specific fisheries," said Jim Curland, advocacy program director at Friends of the Sea Otter. "But sea otters need to expand to their original range. The program didn't allow for that and hindered the animal's recovery."
Despite the evidence of the program's ineffectiveness, Williams of the California Sea Urchin Commission said it is essential in keeping the multiple shellfish industries viable.
"There's this belief with the environmental groups to save sea otters over all other animal species, whether or not they will destroy the abalone and sea urchins in the area," Williams said. "We accepted the balanced approach in 1986, but to allow one species to reign supreme; they will come down here and devour everything."
Sea otter history
-- The need for a sea otter recovery program was due to the fur trade -- running from the 1700s into the early part of 20th century -- bringing the marine mammal to the brink of extinction. The population, once numbering around 16,000 and stretching from Oregon's north coast down to Baja, Mexico had been depleted by 1930 to a colony of just 50 otters residing in Big Sur.
-- With the Fur Seal Act of 1911, sea otters were granted protection from trapping, and their listing as an endangered species in 1973 protected them from incidental or accidental take from commercial fishing operations and protected vital habitat locations.
-- With its numbers slowly increasing, concerns about the sea otter's vulnerability in its small habitat led U.S. Fish and Wildlife to develop a relocation program in the 1980's that would create a colony of sea otters outside its current range, transporting otters to San Nicolas Island.
-- In 1993, the relocation program was suspended and finally abandoned in December 2012 by Fish and Wildlife after years of evaluating its effectiveness.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org or 714-796-2468
(c)2013 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Most Popular Stories
- Obama Administration Releases Proposal to Regulate For-Profit Colleges
- Apple, HP, Intel May Take a Hit from Slowdown in Smartphone Sales Growth
- Elizabeth Vargas' Husband Marc Cohn Addresses Rumors
- Keurig Adds Peet's coffee, Alters Starbucks deal
- FDIC Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Banks Allegedly Hurt by Libor Scandal
- Motley Crue's Nikki Sixx Marries Model Courtney Bingham
- U.S. to Relinquish Gov't Control Over Internet
- Chinese e-Commerce Giant Alibaba Gears for IPO in U.S.
- Some California Cities Seeking Water Independence
- Will Missing Malaysian Jet Prompt Aviation System Change?