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A Win in Court for California Sea Otters

Experts say sea otters keep sea urchins from ravaging kelp forests, maintaining habitat for fish. (Kconnors/Morguefile)
Experts say sea otters keep sea urchins from ravaging kelp forests, maintaining habitat for fish. (Kconnors/Morguefile)
March 2, 2018

PASADENA, Calif. – A big win for southern sea otters, as a federal judge on the 9th Circuit in Pasadena ruled Thursday that the feds do not have to reinstate a failed policy of "No Otter Zones" that had been put in place to protect commercial fishing interests.

Representatives of the sea urchin and abalone industries had sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get them to restart a Reagan era policy of trapping and relocating sea otters from Point Conception to the Mexican border, onto San Nicholas Island, south of Santa Barbara.

Steve Shimek, executive director of The Otter Project, says when 140 otters were moved starting in 1987, all but 11 died, swam back north or disappeared out to sea.

"In retrospect, the idea of putting 'lines' across the water, and saying that a marine mammal should not cross that line, just kind of doesn't make sense,” say Shimek. “So it was destined to fail from the beginning – and it failed."

Environmental groups had to sue to get the feds to stop relocating the otters – and then, sided with the feds in the latest lawsuit to protect the sea mammals.

Shimek estimates about a dozen fishing crews each make $500,000 a year selling sea urchins to sushi chefs in Japan. He thinks it'll be 50 to 100 years before the otters eat so many urchins as to make that fishery unprofitable.

Shimek also notes that sea otters are crucial to a healthy ocean environment.

"If you take the otter out of the system, the system often becomes overrun with urchins and you lose kelp forests,” he says. “Sea otters bring back healthy kelp forests; healthy kelp forests bring back fish."

Sea otters are considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Experts believe 12,000 to 16,000 of them once lived off the Southern California coast – but now, just over 3,000 are left.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - CA