California’s 24th District Representative Elton Gallegly recently introduced the “Military Readiness and Southern Sea Otter Conservation Act” that aims to preserve Southern California’s “No Otter Zone.”

The zone prohibits the animals from venturing south of Point Conception near Santa Barbara and interfering with naval activities. The bill, HR 4043, has come under fire by some marine conservation groups concerned that restricting sea otter populations and habitat will negatively impact the ecosystem.

According to Gallegly, the legislation would allow the U.S. Navy to operate in southern California waters without the risk of violating animal protection laws.

“Under the program, the Navy was exempted from the ‘harassment’ provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, which could be defined as anything as simple as an otter diving under water at the approach of military personnel,” Gallegly said in an email. “This bill will allow the Navy to continue testing and exercises off the Southern California coast, which is vital to our national defense, while also allowing the Southern sea otter to expand its habitat to wherever it wants.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services declared the waters south of Point Conception a “No Otter Zone” in 1987. Although sea otters are permitted to inhabit San Nicholas Island, several environmental groups believe allowing the population to grow beyond the current estimate of 2,711 animals will benefit California’s marine habitat.

Jason Lutterman, program manager for Friends of the Sea Otter, said allowing the population to migrate south will stabilize California’s ecosystem.

“Sea otters, as apex predators, benefit the ecosystem by preying on sea urchins and promoting the growth of kelp forests, which serves as habitat and nurseries for other commercially viable fish,” Lutterman said. “Without otters, kelp-eating sea urchins have become too numerous in Southern California and have destroyed large swathes of kelp habitat. Sea otters also benefit local economies by attracting tourists and promoting marine recreation.”

HR 4043 includes an ecosystem management plan designed by the Directors of the FWS and National Marine and Fisheries Service in coordination with the Marine Mammals Commission. Gallegly said his bill would balance sea otter and other endangered species such as the black and white abalone’s population recovery of as well as maintain current levels of commercial shellfish harvesting.

However, Lutterman said the bill will halt progress against the “No Otter Zone” and will allow fisherman to continue harvesting shellfish without regulation.

“The bill essentially would stall efforts that are currently underway to end the ‘No Otter Zone,’” Lutterman said. “It would ensure that the expanding sea otter would not harm the current shellfish harvest. Gallegly is obviously in league with the shellfish people.”