SEA OTTERS and
ZONAL MANAGEMENT in CALIFORNIA
"The significance of this translocation for future resource management decisions in California needs to be emphasized. As recommended by the Marine Mammal Commission in 1980 ... the ultimate management objective for the California sea otter is to establish a "zonal management" scheme...
In the interest of protecting the California sea otter and... balancing the utilization of the resources of the California coast, I urge adoption of this legislation."
Senator Alan Cranston
Congressional Record, Senate
Prized for their luxurious fur, sea otters were hunted to near extinction by the early 1900s throughout their range around the Pacific Rim, from Russia across the Aleutian Island chain and Alaska down the west coast to California. In 1938, wildlife biologists discovered a small colony of sea otters off Big Sur in central California. Through subsequent decades, as sea otters recolonized the central California coast from Monterey to Morro Bay and beyond, they devoured shellfish resources, eliminating local fisheries for such species as abalone, sea urchins and Pismo clams.
With a mandate to conserve a balance of marine resources, California Department of Fish and Game resource managers first recommended placing limits on sea otter expansion in 1971. Before action could be taken by California, however, Congress enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, transferring custody of all marine mammals to the federal government, with oversight by a newly created Marine Mammal Commission. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) gained responsibility for sea otter protection.
Threatened Species Status:
The FWS listed "southern" sea otters as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1977, on grounds that California otters were jeopardized by offshore oil development and tankering; the herd could be decimated by a massive oil spill. California's otter colony was small and now isolated from a rebounding population of 100,000-200,000 sea otters in Alaska. In a move that continues to evoke debate, FWS listed California sea otters as a separate subspecies.
FWS and the California Department of Fish and Game eventually succeeded in capturing and transporting the animals to the northern portion of their home range on the central coast.
FWS curtailed containment efforts in February, 1993, citing a lack of funding.
P.L. 99-625 directed FWS to specify a line-item budget with sufficient funding for containment. In its MOU with the State, FWS stated:
"The USFWS assumes responsibiity for providing the necessary funding and personnel to implement, enforce, and carry out the translocation program. The USFWS also agrees to identify containment funding as a specific item in its budget structure."
Further, FWS agreed:
"If verified sightings of sea otters are made at any location within the management zone ("no-otter" zone), the USFWS will undertake immediate recapture efforts, as soon as weather and sea conditions permit..."
To date FWS has not kept these promises.
In addition, in 1996 a lack of funding forced the Department of Fish and Game to dismantle its sea otter project, including its sea otter capture and containment team.
FWS also reassigned its biologist/divers certified in rebreather technology, so prompt response to capture and remove sea otters sighted in the management zone was no longer possible.
Sea Otters on the Move
In March 1998, a sea urchin diver working just south of Point Conception, in
Little Cojo Bay, reported a raft of sea otters in the area. He estimated
the number at 25. A week later, a CDFG sea otter biologist conducted an
aerial survey to verify the sighting. He counted 65 otters and estimated
that the colony could number as many as 100 animals. The area in question
is within the management zone that, according to federal law, is to be
kept otter free.The area is within the management zone that, according
to federal law, is to be kept otter free. Within two months, otters had
devoured shellfish stocks in an area that has sustained abalone, sea urchin,
crab and lobster fisheries for many decades.
By the end of October, FWS officials still had not moved to obey the
clear mandate of Congressional law, but instead, scheduled a series of
public meetings to discuss why the Service is reluctant to act. FWS is
now considering declaring translocation a failure. Meanwhile, divers have
begun documenting with underwater video the depletion of shellfish resources
in new areas inhabited by sea otters.
The Value of California's Shellfish and other Fisheries
Scientists in California and Alaska have documented the drastic decline of harvestable shellfish in areas that sea otters have recolonized. They acknowledge that sea otters and shellfisheries cannot coexist at the same time in the same place.
On the central coast, in addition to the loss of fisheries for abalone, sea urchins and Pismo clams, viable nearshore gill net fisheries for California halibut and other species were curtailed to protect sea otters as they recolonized the area. This was due to strict interpretation of federal laws (the MMPA and ESA specifically), which prohibited accidental "takings" in fisheries and also disallowed any management of sea otters.
The Bottom Line
Congress recognized the importance of maintaining a balance of resources. As part of the translocation program, PL 99-625 authorized de facto sea otter management in all southern California waters except for the translocation zone around San Nicolas Island. According to law, management authority would be removed only if FWS, in consultation with the State and Marine Mammal Commission, declared translocation a failure. In that case, PL 99-625 provided that the rulemaking would be amended to terminate the experimental sea otter population. However, the law also expressly stated, as a consequence:
"...all otters remaining within the translocation zone will be captured and placed back into the range of the parent population. Efforts to maintain the management zone free of otters would then be curtailed after all reasonable efforts had been made to remove all otters that were still within the management zone at the time of the decision to terminateŠ Reasonable efforts would include efforts up to the point that FWS and CDFG jointly determine that further efforts were futile."
In any case, FWS must by law dedicate resources to capture and contain sea otters. In April 1998 an FWS official stated that terms of failure had not been met. Existing law mandates FWS to dedicate sufficient funding and manpower to contain sea otters within the management zone. Failure to comply shows contempt for Congressional law.
Bountiful shellfish resources exist both north and south of the sea otter's current range. Sea urchins, a preferred food for sea otters, also sustain one of California's most important fisheries. Valuable fisheries for spiny lobster, crab and other species also are jeopardized by sea otter range expansion. Without PL 99-625 and its provision for zonal management of sea otters, any fishery operating near sea otters with a potential to interact with the animals could be restricted or curtailed, under strict interpretation of marine mammal laws.
In all, California's shellfish and other nearshore fishery resources are valued at untold hundreds of millions of dollars to seafood consumers, California's commercial family fishermen and coastal communities. While the impacts of sea otters may be measured in socio-economic terms, the sea otter controversy extends far beyond simple economics. In its existing form, PL 99-625 is a Congressional mandate representing more than a decade of negotiation and work to enact a policy that perpetuates a balance between sea otter protection, sustainable shellfish resources, and shellfish and other nearshore fisheries for the future. That future, as well as human use of valuable seafood resources, is now at stake.
For more information contact:
Diane Pleschner, manager
California Seafood Council.