”We must hold to the irreplaceables, to the species delicately interbalanced, to the endangered and threatened animals, to the sanctity of life here on our shores”
–Margaret Owings, Founder, Friends of the Sea Otter.
This year, Friends of the Sea Otter celebrates its 46th year of sea otter conservation and the twelfth anniversary of Sea Otter Awareness Week. Throughout the history of the organization, Friends of the Sea Otter has dealt with many critical issues facing sea otters on their road to population recovery. Now is no different.
In a couple of weeks, the U.S. Geological Survey will release the results of the Spring 2014 California sea otter census. Last year, the news was encouraging and gives us some hope about the future recovery of this population. The 3-year average (population index) in 2013 was listed as 2,941 sea otters. This was an increase in the average from the previous year’s population index. As we eagerly await the results for 2014, we realize that there is still much work to be done.
We’re still struggling to understand how disease, shark attacks, food limitations and other threats have kept this charismatic marine mammal on the brink over the last three and a half decades.
The saga involving the legal battles to eliminate the No Otter Zone in Southern California continue. The No Otter Zone is an impediment to sea otter recovery. For decades, Friends of the Sea Otter and others have fought to rid the California coastline of this road block,that is keeping sea otters from returning to historic habitat in Southern California. A coalition of fishing groups, represented by Pacific Legal Foundation, filed a lawsuit last year against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the lawsuit aims to uphold the decades old No-Otter Zone. Their lawsuit challenges the elimination of the No Otter Zone that was finalized in January of 2013 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Friends of the Sea Otter along with colleague organizations, all represented by Earthjustice, filed a motion to intervene on the lawsuit on August 12, 2013. This was granted on October 2, 2013. On October 23, 2013, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked the court to throw out the case based on the theory that the fishing groups were challenging the 1987 regulation that set up the No Otter Zone in the first place, and the legal time period for filing such a challenge has passed. On March 27, 2014, the court ruled in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s favor and dismissed the case. The fishing groups appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. If the Ninth Circuit rules in the fishing industry’s favor, the case will be sent back to the district court to decide the central issue of whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had the authority to end the No Otter Zone. We are tracking the situation while we wait for the Ninth Circuit decision and stand ready to fight, along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to ensure that the government is not forced to revive the failed No Otter Zone and translocation program.
Friends of the Sea Otter continues to monitor the battle up north. The state of Alaska, its fishing industry, and elected officials have been trying to turn back the clock on marine mammal conservation more than 40 years by advocating for the management of sea otters. How are they suggesting they do this? Their answer: by killing sea otters for the sake of small commercial interest groups.
All sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). This makes it illegal to hunt a sea otter or sell any products made from the body of a sea otter, Native Alaskans are permitted to do so, however. In this case, they must sufficiently alter a sea otter pelt into some kind of traditional artifact or handicraft before selling anything made from a sea otter. It is currently illegal for anyone, including Alaskan Natives, to sell unaltered sea otter pelts to non-Alaskan Natives.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had a proposal last year to clarify some terms under the MMPA and Friends of the Sea Otter is focusing on their clarification of “significantly altered”. The proposed revised definition for “significantly altered” raised some serious concerns. The definition of “significantly altered” is too broad and at odds with the MMPA and is being conducted without any environmental impact analysis. It isn’t as restrictive as it needs to be and could potentially result in blankets and rugs being made from sea otter pelts without “significantly altering” the pelt as is the intention of the MMPA. This would be devastating for sea otters and increase the market for their pelts.
While U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared in their final documents last year that this exercise of clarifying definitions is in no way a means to allow predator control of sea otter populations in Southeast Alaska, Friends of the Sea Otter is monitoring this closely. Through a grant, we are planning some outreach to native communities, hunters, fishers, and others to remind them about the laws that exist and that sea otters can not be hunted as a means to ease conflicts with fisheries.
With all of these emerging issues, it is even more important to highlight the need to protect and conserve sea otter populations. Sea Otter Awareness Week once again shines the big spotlight on the need for everyone to understand the plight of this species and help where you can. Friends of the Sea Otter continues to do our part. Please help us help sea otters!
You can follow Friends of the Sea Otter on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/friendsoftheseaotter ) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/#!/friendsseaotter ) and learn more about what Friends of the Sea Otter is doing and how you can help at http://www.seaotters.org
Article by guest blogger, Jim Curland, Advocacy Program Director and Frank Reynolds, Program Manager for Friends of the Sea Otter