The furry-faced sea otter is stirring up quite the legal battle.

A group of commercial fishermen is concerned that the sea otter will eventually outfish them in fisheries around the Channel Islands, and filed a lawsuit earlier last week challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) December 2012 decision officially ending the “no-otter zone” program.

The 1987 rule enacted by Congress, known as the Southern Sea Otter Translocation Program, prohibited southern sea otters in California waters from Point Conception to the Mexican border.

In response to the lawsuit filed by Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of sea urchin, abalone and lobster fishermen, a coalition of environmental groups that includes the Environmental Defense Center and The Otter Project announced they will be filing papers to intervene in the lawsuit and defend the FWS decision.

“They’re seeing their commercial interests take precedent over everything else and I don’t believe that,” said Steve Shimek, executive director of The Otter Project. “I don’t believe the immediacy they’re portraying. They’re portraying mongrel hordes of otters are waiting in the line to eat all ‘their’ urchins and that is not the way it is.”

The commercial fishing groups — California Abalone Assn., the California Lobster and Trap Fishermen’s Assn., Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, and the California Sea Urchin Commission — have argued that ending the “no-otter zone” will possibly decimate the local shell-fishing economies within the next 10 to 20 years, as sea otters’ favorite food is shellfish.

“It won’t be tomorrow,” said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Jonathan Wood, about the otters adversely affecting local fisheries. “It will take some time depending on how quickly the otters spread into Southern California, but the service acknowledges a lot of these fisheries can’t coexist in a size large enough that can accommodate fishing if the sea otters spread.”

Congress adopted the Southern Sea Otter Translocation Program so FWS could move 140 sea otters from Monterey Bay to San Nicholas Island. Wildlife authorities felt the move was necessary to protect the species from extinction in case an oil spill occurred near their northern breeding grounds. Fishermen objected to the move for the same reasons they don’t want otters around the Channel Islands fisheries today: competition. To placate the commercial fishing industry, Congress enacted the “no-otter zone” in waters south of Point Conception. Otters that drifted into the zone were captured and relocated.

The environmental coalition has argued that ending the otter-free zone is crucial for the survival of sea otters, as they now can float freely in Southern California waters. According to the coalition, 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.

“The bottom line is that it will be impossible to have recovery of this species with the zone in place,” said Shimek. “To manage the ocean is really hard and to manage ecosystems in the ocean is incredibly hard. The notion that you can do it, I find impossible. It would only be possible if fishermen went out and started shooting otters, and I don’t think society would allow that.”

Despite the environmental group’s arguments about the sea otter habitat, Wood argued that FWS did not take proper steps to end the otter-free zone. They simply cannot choose to stop enforcing the congressional decision. Doing so is illegal, he said.

“This is about the rule of law,” Wood said. “The agency doesn’t have the authority to say they’re going to ignore that.  If they decided they want a different policy, then they can go to Congress and change the law.”