Jan 17 2011

Environmental Groups Concede Sea Otter Protections Deserve More Scientific Study

Peter Halmay diving

By Harry Liquornik and Peter Halmay

After a yearlong legal fight with two environmental groups, the federal government recently came to an agreement surrounding the future protection of the threatened California sea otter.

If you believe the rhetoric coming from the plaintiff groups, they scored a major victory.

According to their statements, the Otter Project and the Environmental Defense Center are now on the path to freeing the sea otters from government interference and allowing the animals to return to the waters off Southern California.

But that’s not really the whole story, or even the whole truth.

Instead of dealing with meaningful, yet difficult, water quality problems this ill-conceived lawsuit sought simplicity — allow sea otters to go find places to survive on their own.

Sadly, without even so much as demanding an update to the 2005 scientific research surrounding the sea otters’ habitat, and seemingly not allowing the government to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the lawsuit took aim at terminating a key element of the government’s sea otter recovery program.

What’s more, these groups also wanted to ignore the act’s requirements that demand a program for a listed threatened species — such as sea otters — must also avoid harming other listed species. In this case, two endangered native abalone species are a primary prey of the threatened sea otters and the abalone share the habitat that will likely be occupied by the sea otters if the management program is ultimately ended.

The program, which began in 1987, established a separate colony of sea otters at San Nicolas Island as an insurance policy to protect the species in the event of a major oil spill. The plan also set up a sea otter management zone to protect Southern California’s shellfish fisheries, which represent a critical part of the state’s marine ecosystem and are an important element of many coastal communities.

Despite what the lawsuit claimed, the program has been a success.

Currently, the San Nicolas Island colony boasts the healthiest sea otters in California; these animals are reproducing at double the rate of the mainland population. Conversely, the island success stands in stark contrast to the mainland population, where approximately 300 sea otters die each year.

It’s for these reasons that several groups who know that a comprehensive ecosystem-wide protection plan is much more effective than a species-by-species approach, intervened in the lawsuit. This coalition, headed by the California Sea Urchin Commission, understands that without a functional ecosystem management plan, all species are at risk, not just a single target species. And that’s why we must redouble our efforts to fulfill all the elements of the 1987 program.

Thankfully, the court-approved agreement forced the plaintiffs to ultimately agree with the Sea Urchin Commission and its partners on practically all points put forward — that updating the 2005 study was appropriate; all elements of a final decision should in fact depend on a new analysis; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should consider impacts to other protected marine species; and it should also consider the negative impact that poor water quality is having on sea otters. So what did the plaintiffs get for their lawsuit efforts?

They got taxpayers to reimburse them $55,000 in legal fees for an agreement which they could have received with a written request and first-class stamp.

And what did the people of California get, besides an unnecessary bill? A chance for a comprehensive review of the translocation experiment and a chance to further develop a meaningful ecosystem-based management of the resources.

Harry Liquornik serves as chairman of the California Sea Urchin Commission and Peter Halmay is a former member of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s sea otter recovery implementation team. Both are commercial sea urchin divers.

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