If you’re out surfing or walking along the beach, take a peek toward the Channel Islands. Among the seals, dolphins or rare whales, you might once again spot the California sea otter, due in part to the lifting of an artificial “no-otter zone” and a failed lawsuit to have it reinstated.
In 1987, after a plea from an alliance of California fishermen and divers, the California Fish and Game Commission enacted the “no-otter zone,” effectively disallowing the southern sea otter from waters ranging from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border.
Part of the plan was to relocate 140 sea otters from the Southern California coast to San Nicolas Island on the far end of the Channel Islands. Of the 140 otters, 90 percent either died or disappeared.
“It became clear within a couple years of the initial translocation effort that the program had failed,” said Brian Segee, senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Center. “You cannot keep wild animals in a specific area with an imaginary line around them.”
In 1993, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which implements and enforces the regulations promulgated by the Fish and Game Commission, stopped relocating the otters over concern for their well being, but it wasn’t until 2009 that a coalition consisting of the Otter Project and the Environmental Defense Center sued the commission for failing to act to end the arbitrary zone, which, while not being enforced, still existed. In 2012 the zone officially ended.
At the end of February, an alliance of the California Sea Urchin Commission, California Abalone Association, California Lobster and Trap Fishermen’s Association and the Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara sued, claiming that the Fish and Game Commission didn’t have the authority to end the no-otter zone.
The defendants, a coalition that includes Friends of the Sea Otter and other pro-otter groups, successfully defended the decision of U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee to dismiss the fishermen’s suit.
“Yes, there are otters in the zone today and yes, we are seeing them progressively move in to the zone and start living in the zone,” said Steve Shimek, chief executive with The Otter Project.
In 1998, a little more than 150 otters moved en masse into the no-otter zone and eventually left of their own accord. It was around that time that the fishermen’s associations sued the Department of Fish and Wildlife for failure to enforce the no-otter zone and were turned down by a district judge on the grounds that the commission had plans to dismantle the artificial area.
For 10 years, the Fish and Game Commission failed to act on removal of the zone. In 2009, the Friends of the Sea Otter and partners sued in order to force a timeline on the commission, at which point the fishermen countersued to reinstate it.
Today, mothers with pups are being spotted in the area of San Miguel Island, and others have been seen just off the coast near to UC, Santa Barbara, and as far south as Long Beach and San Diego.
“It turns out that the Channel Islands are incredibly important to the otter,” said Shimek. “You can’t get the number of otters to recover the population under the Marine Mammal Protection Act without including the islands.”
The southern sea otter is a protected species with numbers ranging near 2,800 in its native habitat, which once supported upward of 16,000. For fishermen, especially those who harvest sea urchins and other shellfish, the sea otter is a competitor that they’d rather not see close to the prized fisheries near the Channel Islands.
“Otters have an incredibly varied diet but are essentially lazy,” said Shimek. “They go after the big globs of protein first, which means they’re going to go after urchin and abalone, but then they start eating a huge variety of other things.”
David Goldenberg, executive director for the California Sea Urchin Commission, says that with no protected area for fishermen, the sea otter can and will shrink the area in which divers can collect sea urchin and other shellfish.
“Because they’re a protected species, if they move into an area where we’re fishing, we the fishermen will be asked to move out because we can’t harvest in the area the otters are in,” said Goldenberg.
According to statistics provided by the California Sea Urchin Commission, between January and November of 2013, the sea urchin industry in California produced close to $8.5 million in total paid to fishermen and divers for 11 million pounds of product. This total also reflects marketing costs and exports.
“There are a number of areas in the ocean that have been designated no-fishing areas,” said Goldenberg. “Consequently, we have lost about 30 percent of our fishing areas. Over time, if these sea otters move, then we’re potentially going to have less space in order to fish.”
Goldenberg says that while urchins may be affected by an increase in otter numbers, the various species of abalone — a protected species under the endangered species act – are in greater danger.
“We would like to see the Fish and Wildlife services take a look at all the parameters and look at managing the entire complexity of life within the ocean; to say that otters are more important than abalone or fishermen or a person is disingenuous.”
Both Segee and Shimek said that if the sea otter population were to rise in certain areas, the shellfish industry would be affected. Both, however, note that where sea otters have been permitted along the coast farther northward, fishermen have adapted.
“There will certainly be impacts to the shellfish industry,” said Segee. “I think it’s also important to remember that otters increase marine biodiversity, including fin fish, which can be fished commercially.”
As sea otters eat sea urchin, kelp forests are better able to grow, creating an environment for fish and other marine life to breed.
“I think the mistake is … assuming it’s a zero-sum game,” said Segee. “It’s not a matter of fisheries versus no fisheries, but what are those fisheries going to look like?”
Goldenberg says that as far as the battle over reinstating the no-otter zone is concerned, the California Sea Urchin Commission is “looking at all of [its] options.”.