Supreme Court passes on challenge to 'no otter zone' program dismantling

Nov 2, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied to hear a case aiming to restrict where California sea otters can swim and live, a situation that has fishermen pitted against otters.

The case dates back to the 1980s, when there was a small, concentrated population of sea otters on the Central Coast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saw this population as vulnerable to going extinct in case of an oil spill, so it relocated a small group of those otters to San Nicolas Island in Channel Islands to repopulate.

Simon Shimek, executive director of the Otter Project, said the relocation project was poorly designed.

“It started as a right-minded idea, to start a second population of otters, but it was kind of a dumb idea,” Shimek said.

Relocating a group of otters out to the Channel Islands brought up concerns for fisherman in that area.

“Moving otters into a new fishery imposes quite a few costs on the people who are already there,” Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. “Fisherman faced the prospect of their fisheries being depleted, and even the prospect that they might go to jail if they were to accidentally get too close to a sea otter.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation is one of the groups that sued the national Fish and Wildlife Service when the service ended a program that Congress had created as a compromise between fishermen and otter conservationists.

The program was called the “no-otter zone,” and it called for Fish and Wildlife to trap and relocate otters that swam south of Point Conception, all the way to the Mexican border, leaving that whole marine area solely the domain of the fishing industry.

The “no-otter zone” designation went on for years, until The Otter Project and the Environmental Defense Center sued in 2009 and won. The “no-otter zone” was dismantled officially in 2013 and the otters were free once again to inhabit Southern California waters. Since then, the otter population has reached over 3,000, surpassing recovery guidelines set for the animals as endangered species.

But people who make their living fishing in the same waters as otters, like sea urchin fishers, don’t want to have to compete. And their attorneys fought on the grounds that the decisions of federal agencies can’t supersede acts of Congress.

Wood and the fisheries he represents say although their case ultimately lost out at the highest court, it’s not the end of these types of cases.

“I think it's a matter of just a matter of time before the court takes up the case on this issue because if federal agencies have the broad power the Ninth Circuit says they do,” Wood said. “This is a problem that's going to come up over and over and over.”

In the meantime, California sea otters are free to return to their natural habitat from the Central Coast to Mexico.

KCBX News intern Madi Burgess contributed to this report.