September 21, 2016

Sea otter numbers continue to climb in California

By Jonathan Wood Attorney
Courtesy of NOAA
Courtesy of NOAA

This week, the U.S. Geological Survey released its population estimate for California’s sea otter, finding that the population has exceeded its recovery goal for the first time. This is good news for both the sea otter, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and users of California’s coast. According to the species’ recovery plan, it will be considered recovered and delisted when the population exceeds its recovery goal for three consecutive years.

The press release accompanying the survey highlights one area in particular where the population has grown substantially—San Nicolas Island.

“The sea otters at San Nicolas Island continue to thrive, and some may eventually emigrate to and colonize other Channel Islands in southern California,” says Brian Hatfield, the USGS biologist who coordinates the annual census.

It’s deeply ironic that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared this population a “failure” in 2012, in a decision that threatens the liberties and livelihoods of all those who work and play in Southern California’s waters. As you may recall, PLF has challenged that decision, arguing that it violates the statute that allowed the Service to create the San Nicolas Island population.

Otters are voracious consumers of shellfish, thus their reintroduction was highly controversial. To resolve the conflict, Congress enacted a compromise that conditioned the Service’s authority to establish the population on its implementing protections for the surrounding fishery and those who work and play in surrounding waters. One of those protections is an exemption from prosecution for anyone who accidentally “takes” an otter in surrounding waters by, for instance, getting too close to one of them. This protection is what allows the fishermen PLF represents to pursue their livelihoods, free of the threat of criminal prosecution and environmentalists’ lawsuits. We argue that, by accepting the statute’s authority to create the San Nicolas Island population, the Service became bound by these other obligations and can’t break the deal Congress struck.

According to one report, one of the research biologists involved in the survey suggested that:

At some point, there may be efforts to move some otters to new locations, like San Francisco Bay or farther up the California coast toward Oregon, [Tim Tinker] said. … [But m]oving otters would likely be controversial, particularly among fishermen…

No kidding! The Service’s decision to renege on the San Nicolas Island deal makes it extremely difficult to trust it going forward. As former President George W. Bush once said:

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