Next month, California sea otters may finally gain back their legal right to swim freely in waters along the Southern California coastline after 24 years of the marine mammals being banned in a “no otter” management zone stretching from Point Conception down to the Mexican border.
United States Fish and Wildlife Services first lobbied to pass the ban — known as P.L. 99-625 — in 1986 in an effort to prevent the otter population from suffering from potential oil spills and intermingling with fisheries. A lawsuit seeking to repeal the ban for going against policy options outlined in the Administrative Procedures Act has been partially backed by the Environmental Defense Center.
According to the legislation banning otter activity, the management zone was established to preserve the endangered otter population as enumerated in the Endangered Species Act in 1977.
However, according to Steve Shimek — who founded an organization combating no otter zone policies entitled “The Otter Project” — the ban did not achieve the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ goal as it has resulted in greatly diminished otter populations overall.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services felt that the entire population could be wiped out if there was a catastrophic oil spill, so they moved otters to San Nicolas Island … [But] what happened was, initially, all but 11 swam home,” Shimek said. “The population … has never really taken off. The maximum count was more that 40 [but] less than 50 otters. The whole point was to establish a viable population and 40 animals does not make a viable population. … If there is not a viable population then [the zone] should be considered a failure.”
According to the legislation mandating the ban, if the relocated population does not manage to foster a new populace then the law will be disbanded and the no otter zone will be removed.
But Shimek said the law provides a loophole as Incidental Take is allowed within the no otter zone, meaning that fishermen who accidentally capture the creatures do not need to grant them the same protections that the Endangered Species Act mandates in non-management zones.
Third-year zoology major Jenna Lynch said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services were wrong to try to move the marine mammals from their habitat in Southern California’s coastal waters.
“This is an indigenous species,” Lynch said. “We have no right to disrupt the entire marine ecosystem by moving them.”
According to Southern Sea Otter Recovery & Marine Conservation Coordinator Lilian Carswell, lifting the ban in December would help restore a historical part of California’s coastline.
“It’s a milestone and has been in the works for several years,” Carswell said.
This past summer, four UCSB students produced a film about the controversy for the Carsey-Wolf Center’s Blue Horizons Summer Program for Environmental Media. The film, “No Otter Zone,” will be screened in Pollock Theater on Nov. 27; tickets are free to all and can be reserved at http://www.carseywolf.ucsb.edu/emi/ events/2012-blue-horizons-student-film-premiere.
A version of this article appeared on page 3 of November 14th, 2012’s print edition of the Nexus.