Sea Otters Get Coastal Commission Assist as Shellfish Groups Take Aim

Environmental and mammal-protection groups are hailing a recent California Coastal Commission vote they say will allow sea otters to swim freely and legally in Southern California waters.

This is the result of the commission deciding unanimously last week that a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to end a failed southern sea otter translocation program does not violate California's Coastal Act.

The U.S. Coastal Zone Management Act requires that federal marine protection policies mesh with those of states. The Coastal Commission found that terminating a translocation program that has not worked and has hindered the recovery of sea otter populations is consistent with California's protected marine zone.

At odds is the so-called "no-otter" zone that lobbyists for sea urchins and shellfish had successfully convinced Fish and Wildlife to enforce. Under a 2010 legal settlement with two nonprofits--the Otter Project and the Environmental Defense Center (EDC)--the federal agency has agreed to reach a final decision on the future of the translocation project and the "no otter" zone by December.

"The commission's decision brings us one step closer to having southern sea otters fully protected throughout California and freely swimming in Southern California waters," says Steve Shimek, chief executive and founder of the Otter Project, in a joint statement with the EDC. "This is a crucial outcome supporting recovery of one of California's most charismatic marine species."

"Allowing southern sea otters return to southern California coastal waters will be a great benefit to the region's economy and environment," adds Brian Segee, staff attorney with EDC, in the same statement. "It also serves the purposes of the California Coastal Act, which promotes the protection and restoration of the marine environment and threatened species such as the southern sea otter."

Not so fast, you little Enhydra lutrises: the shellfish groups successfully got tucked into the House National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 a provision that provides exemptions to "take"--what you may know better as kill, harm or harass--southern sea otters that would otherwise be illegal under the federal Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The EDC and the Otter Project, arguing that offing sea otters has no place in a national defense bill, say they are working hard to "take" the provision.

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