Sea otters victorious against fishing industry in California's coast
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The U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition by commercial fishing organizations to reinstate the “no otter zone” along the coast of Southern California on October 29th. This victory for the threatened sea otters will allow them to safely repopulate the California coast in its entirety under the protection of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The battle over the restoration of the “no otter zone” has been no small state of affairs. As of press time, multiple organizations in the fishing industry--including the California Sea Urchin Commission, California Abalone Association, California Lobster and Trap Fisherman’s Association, and Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara--had appealed to both the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, making the case that allowing sea otters to once again inhabit their home waters would greatly interfere with business. Conversely, organizations advocating for the protection of these animals--such as the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), Otter Project, and Los Angeles Waterkeeper--argue that bringing back the “no otter zone” would inhibit the genuine recovery of the already dangerously low sea otter population. On March 1st of this year, the Ninth Circuit rejected the appeal of the fishing industry. Not satisfied with this ruling, the appeal was then taken to the Supreme Court, and to the dismay of these commercial fishing organizations, the Supreme Court denied the appeal as well.
The initial purpose of the “no otter zone” program, implemented in 1987, was to satisfy the desires of the fishing industry to remain profitable, and the desires of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to conserve the dwindling population of sea otters. The FWS relocated a portion of sea otters in the designated “zone,” an area off the southern coast of California stretching from Point Conception down to the U.S.-Mexico border, to San Nicolas Island. Any fishing was consequently only done in the newly established “no otter zone,” where sea otters could not interfere. However, according to Steve Shimek, executive director of the Otter Project in Monterey, the program was an “unnatural, unhealthy system,” and a complete failure—only 11 of the initially 140 sea otters that were relocated survived. After many years, the program was finally terminated in 2013, and now with the Supreme Court’s latest decision, the “no otter zone” program will remain as such.
Bruce Reznik, Executive Director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper, has a word for fishermen who believe their businesses will be ruin. He says that “fisheries will be much more robust” with the restoration of coastal habitats and ecosystems. This process won’t happen overnight, but with the additional protection gained in the ruling of the Supreme Court, there is finally hope.