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California fishermen file suit in effort to keep 'otter-free zone'

Suit filed on behalf of harvesters of sea urchin, abalone and lobster accuses federal agency of illegally terminating program designed to protect fisheries.

August 01, 2013|By Louis Sahagun
  • A sea otter dines on shellfish. Federal officials ended efforts to maintain an otter-free zone in January after determining that capturing and relocating sea otters that wander into the zone was hurting efforts to protect the species.
A sea otter dines on shellfish. Federal officials ended efforts to maintain… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Commercial fishermen have filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for abandoning a program to create an "otter-free zone" in Southern California coastal waters that sustain shellfish industries.

The lawsuit, filed this week by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of harvesters of sea urchin, abalone and lobster south of Point Conception, accuses the agency of illegally terminating the program without congressional approval or authorization. Otters are voracious eaters of shellfish.

Federal officials ended the program in January after determining that capturing and trans-locating sea otters that wander into the "otter-free zone" was hurting efforts to protect and recover the species — even as it succeeded in protecting shellfish fisheries.

The sea otter population has not risen much in recent years, as the creatures suffer from disease, parasites, inadequate food supplies, shark bites and the occasional bullet wound. An estimated 2,792 now exist off the California coast.

Tuesday, a coalition of environmental groups led by Friends of the Sea Otter announced that it would intervene in the case on behalf of federal wildlife authorities.

"The problem is that the shellfish industry flourished after sea otters were all but wiped out by the fur trade," said Jim Curland, advocacy program director of the nonprofit Friends of the Sea Otter. "Now, if the fishermen's lawsuit were to prevail, our concern is that harm, injury and even death to sea otters would follow."

Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Jonathan Wood argued that the no-otter zone was needed to prevent the furry, button-nose marine mammals from "ravaging fragile nearby fisheries and destroying local economies."

"We're not attacking sea otters," Wood said. "It's just that without a sea otter management zone, the fisheries our clients rely on will be decimated in 10 to 20 years."

Plaintiffs include the California Abalone Assn., the California Lobster and Trap Fishermen's Assn., Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, and the California Sea Urchin Commission, a state panel dedicated to promoting education about the nutritional value of the sea urchin.

"This case is about balance in environmental policies, and adherence to the rule of law," Wood said.

Congress established the "otter-free zone" in the late 1980s as part of an effort by federal wildlife authorities to move 140 otters from Monterey Bay to San Nicolas Island, about 60 miles off the coast of Ventura County.

State and federal marine biologists said the program was necessary because sea otters could be threatened with extinction if their breeding grounds off Monterey were hit with an oil spill or disease. They also figured that the small, rocky island was perfectly suited for the 40- to 60-pound mammals because its pristine coastal waters teemed with their favorite foods — abalone, crabs, lobster, mussels and sea urchins.

In a deal with fishermen who worried that moving otters to the island could interfere with commercial harvesting activities, the government declared waters south of Point Conception off limits to otters.

Scientists estimate that about 16,000 Southern sea otters once lived along the California coast before they were hunted nearly to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries for their pelts. The federal government declared them threatened with extinction in 1977 and protected them under the Endangered Species Act.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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