Monterey, California – As a direct result of a 2009 lawsuit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) brought by The Otter Project and Environmental Defense Center (EDC), FWS released a statement today proposing to end the 24-year-old southern sea otter translocation program and to abolish the otter management zone. This will allow sea otters to establish themselves in southern California waters. In a 2010 settlement agreement, the FWS agreed to release the Revised Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) before September 1, 2011 with their preferred decision. That document, released today, includes a finding that the “no otter zone” has been a failure and should be discontinued.
“We are ecstatic that the FWS is proposing to remove the regulations that govern the southern sea otter translocation program and allow sea otters to expand their home range back into southern California,” said Brad Hunt, Program Manager of the Otter Project.
“It is gratifying that the Service finally has concluded, after more than 24 years of failure, that the “No-Otter” Zone experiment should come to an end,” said Brian Segee, staff attorney at EDC. “This is exactly what we hoped for when we filed the suit,” said Steve Shimek, Executive Director of The Otter Project. “We have already heard reports of otter sightings in the Santa Barbara Channel, which we hope will become commonplace in the years ahead.”
In the late 1980s the US Fish and Wildlife Service moved otters from northern California to San Nicolas Island off southern California in an effort to safeguard the population from a catastrophic oil spill. The Southern California petroleum industry, shellfish fishermen, and the Department of Defense objected to the move and as a result, all of southern California with the exception of San Nicolas Island was declared out-of-bounds to otters. Stray otters were to be non-lethally trapped and moved north. Many otters died as a result of the original move to San Nicholas and more died in the trapping efforts.
“Both the translocation and the ‘No-Otter’ Zone have failed the sea otter,” said Steve Shimek, executive director of the Otter Project. “Of the 140 otters moved to San Nicolas, there are only about 50 around the Island today. A handful of sea otters are living peacefully along the mainland Santa Barbara coast. We can’t expect sea otters to recognize a pretend water boundary. It’s time to legalize these otters!”
The “Sea Otter” Revised Draft Supplemental Environment Impact Statement and the “No-Otter” Zone will be the subject of public hearings in early October. The Otter Project believes the no-otter zone is impractical and inhibits sea otter recovery. “There are only 2700 sea otters where there were once around 12,000. Ending the no-otter zone will be a major step forward towards a positive, long-term solution for the recovery of the sea otters,” said Shimek. Sound science shows that otters must be able to spread their small numbers to avoid their near-extinction population from being wiped out by local pollution or oil spills.
On September 9, 2009 the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), on behalf of The Otter Project, filed suit to put an end the “No-Otter” Zone and restoring protections to otters south of Point Conception. [See Press Release at: www.edcnet.org/news/PressReleases/09-09-30.pdf]. While both organizations were fully committed to following through on the case, both hoped that its filing will prompt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to take action rather than fight in the courts.
On May 6, 2010, a federal judge denied a motion to dismiss the case, finding that the FWS has a duty to evaluate the success of failure of its rule barring otters from southern California waters. [See Press Release at: www.edcnet.org/news/PressReleases/10-05-06.pdf].
On November 22, 2010, EDC and The Otter Project entered into a settlement agreement with the FWS requiring it to take certain actions required prior to terminating the failed “No-Otter” Zone rule. [See Press Release at: www.edcnet.org/news/PressReleases/10-11-22.pdf].
Today: FWS announced that it has completed the actions and made the findings required by the settlement [See Press Release at: http://www.fws.gov/cno/press/release.cfm?rid=253]. This enables the FWS to comply with the terms of the settlement which now require a public comment on the proposed rule, completion of a final Environmental Impact Statement and final failure determination by December 7, 2012.