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A Pacific Otter-Free Zone! What's Wrong With This Picture?

May 16, 2016

type text hereOn May 6, 2016, Courthouse News Service published an article on the effort of Southern California fishermen asking the 9th Federal Circuit Court to restore an “otter free zone” offshore from Point Conception north of Los Angles to the Mexican border some 300 miles south.

The idea on the part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (F&WS) was to do “something” to rebuild the threatened Southern California sea otter population. That was in 1987. So they decided to relocate the wild otter population to San Nicolas Island, a US Navy “training island” in the Channel Island chain. That became the otter “translocation zone.” The 300 plus miles of coastal waters from Point Conception to the US/Mexico border was dubbed the “management zone.”

In effect, the Fish & Wildlife Service turned the otter’s natural habitat into a commercial fisherman’s paradise where the fishermen were exempted from Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) sanctions for eliminating otters in ways other than “translocating” them to San Nicolas Island.

From the fishermen’s point of view, the plan was excellent. It removed their natural competition for sea urchins, abalone, lobster and other tasty sea items. For the otters, not so much – a chunk of military training geography was no place to raise baby sea otters. Translocated otters died, disappeared or simply went back home to the extensive “management zone” that was now quite literally a smorgasbord the otter’s favorite cuisine.

By 1991, F&WS decided to end the effort. However, the Service failed to act on one small technical detail – issuing a formal Termination Decree needed to formally end the “Otter Project.” That bit of legalism was finally published in 2012…two years after environmental groups filed suit demanding the Service live up to its own rules and regulations and shut down the program once and for all. A few months later in 2013, the California Sea Urchin Commission, California Abalone Association, California Lobster and Trap Fishermen's Association and Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara filed suit to reinstate the “otter-free zone.” The court said no in 2014.

The hearing on May 7 is an attempt to reverse that decision.

No doubt the intent of the original 1987 F&WS program had merit. Saving a depleted sea otter population is a good thing. How they went about it raises the quintessential question: just who or what was F&WS trying to protect?

The program claimed that removing sea otters from over 300 miles of prime habitat to an isolated “reservation” was good for the otters. Forget the fact that it opened that same huge expanse of ocean and its rich store of marine resources to commercial fishermen and gave them carte blanche and a “get out of jail free” card if they just happened to kill a few otters along the way.

The historical collorary would compare the otter removal program to the 19th Century Native American removal effort. Is the “otter free zone” any different from the “Indian free zone” or reservations enacted by the government back then? Was removing Native Americans to isolated reservations a move to save Indians or a means to eliminate them from their native habitat and give land and resource barrons freedom to ply their (and our) attitude towards environmental exploitation? One has to question just whose side the F&WS is on!

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