On February 15th, Representative Gallegly (R – Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties) introduced H.R. 4043, a bill that represents a full step backwards in sea otter conservation. Though deceptively titled as legislation that promotes the recovery of the threatened southern sea otter, the “Military Readiness and Southern Sea Otter Conservation Act“ would in fact undermine the current process of ending the antiquated no-otter zone that was established in 1987. The no-otter zone prohibited sea otters from entering coastal waters south of Point Conception (near Santa Barbara), but has failed in its purpose and is currently undergoing the process to be terminated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by this December.
H.R. 4043 requires that termination of the no-otter zone be stalled again while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service complete an “Ecosystem Management Plan.” Under H.R. 4043, an Ecosystem Management Plan would have to “[ensure] the commercial harvest of shellfish fisheries at levels approximating current harvests.” Shellfish harvests in southern California have declined because of over-harvesting by the same groups that would benefit from this bill by requiring a plan that would maintain their current harvest levels. This requirement is essentially a handout to the commercial shellfish industry and a license to continue practicing their irresponsible harvests.
The Ecosystem Management Plan would also have to ensure the recovery of the endangered white and black abalone, though scientists have concluded over and over again that the decline of these species was not due to sea otters. Indeed, the two species can and do co-exist. Because it conveniently supports their goal of opposing sea otter range expansion, the shellfish industry continues to promulgate the unproven belief that otters are the sole cause of the white and black abalone’s decline.
Sea otters, once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were nearly eliminated from California in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only in the past few decades has the species begun to recover, though the recovery has not been without its struggles. The latest survey found the population had declined by 3.6% to 2,711 animals. There is general consensus that, in order for the species to confront the varied obstacles it faces (from pollution and disease to food limitation), it must be allowed to naturally expand its range.
Sea otters should be allowed to swim freely, unobstructed by special interests. H.R. 4043 is no more than a veiled tactic aimed at obstructing the termination of the no-otter zone and securing a restriction on the sea otter’s natural range while giving a handout to the shellfish fisheries. Halting natural range expansion would defeat the well-studied environmental benefits, economic gains and jobs associated with tourism, sea otters, and a balanced and healthy ecosystem. H.R. 4043 is bad for otters, bad for jobs, and bad for the environment. It’s time to stand up to the obstructionists and end the no-otter zone.