California Sea Urchin Commission v. Jacobson
The introduction of sea otters into an area meant to farm urchins and other shellfish breeds only disaster. Urchins are otters’ favorite food and whenever sea otters move into urchin territory, the commercial urchin resources collapses due to the otters’ voracious appetite. Fishing companies reliant on abalone, lobster, crab, clams, and other shellfish are similarly threatened by the otter takeover. In 1987, Congress enacted a statutory compromise that gave the Fish and Wildlife Service discretionary authority to establish a new population of sea otters near San Nicolas Island, off the coast of Southern California, on the condition that it exempted fisheries and the fishermen who work in them from many of the regulations protecting the otters. Most importantly, the statute exempted lawful fishing activities from liability under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Without that protection, fishermen and sea urchin divers could be subject to oppressive civil and criminal fines for simply getting to close to a sea otter.
Ignoring this statutory mandate, and over vocal objections by the fisheries, the Service left a thriving and growing population of otters at San Nicolas Island but eliminated the rest of the area south to the Mexican border as an otter-free management zone to be used by the fishing industry. Growing otter populations leave fewer and fewer areas where fishermen can work without risk of incidental take liability. By eliminating the statute’s exemption for incidental take within the management zone, the decision alters the legal status of their work and exposes them to civil and criminal liability—as well as lawsuits from environmental groups. PLF sued the Service on behalf of commercial fishing companies to restore the Congressionally-mandated exemption for lawful fishing activities. A federal district court upheld the Service’s actions and PLF appealed to the Ninth Circuit.