New Bill Takes Aim at Sea Otters!

takeaction New Bill Takes Aim at Sea Otters!

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.

Write your representative to oppose H.R. 4043.

Feds Declare Critical Habitat for Black Abalone

black abalone Feds Declare Critical Habitat for Black Abalone

Black abalone cluster together in a rocky, intertidal crag on San Nicolas Island. Photo by: David Witting, NOAA Restoration Center.

On November 28th the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) designated 360 square kilometers of California coast up to a depth of 6 meters as critical habitat for the black abalone.

This is great news for not only black abalone, a species whose numbers have declined rapidly in the last few decades and is listed under the Endangered Species Act, but it is also great news for the entire Californian nearshore ecosystem. Designating habitat as critical goes beyond the normal protections afforded an individual species that is listed under the Endangered Species Act. By protecting the species’ habitat and designating it as critical, the NMFS is protecting not just habitat currently occupied by black abalone, but also potential habitat not currently occupied but into which the species can expand and recover.

Once a habitat is listed as critical, any federal project (or projects that receive federal assistance or require federal permits) that affect the habitat must be identified, assessed, and its impacts mitigated if possible. For example, if an agricultural operation uses pesticides requiring a federal permit, they must prove that their operations will not negatively affect the species or the designated critical habitat and prevent black abalone from expanding their range. This is a huge step toward safeguarding the marine ecosystem for not only black abalone, but for other wildlife that call the nearshore ecosystem their home as well, such as sea otters.

Southern sea otters, also listed under the Endangered Species Act, have long been blamed by fishing groups for the rapid decline of black abalone. These groups have often used the decline of the black abalone as a reason for restricting the sea otter’s range. They claim that sea otters, some of which prey on black abalone as a part of their natural diet, are the main driver of the black abalone’s decline in California. The NMFS reconfirmed, in their response to comments on their proposed rule to declare critical habitat for black abalone, that sea otters and are not a main driver of the black abalone’s decline. In particular, the NMFS claimed:

  1. Sea otters were absent from southern California during the widespread decline of black abalone in that region
  2. The current last foothold for black abalone (i.e. central and north-central California habitats) directly overlaps with the current range of sea otters
  3. One of the only places in southern California where black abalone populations have been increasing and where multiple recruitment events have occurred since 2005 (i.e. San Nicolas Island) is also the only place south of Point Conception where a growing population of southern sea otters exists, indicating that black abalone populations can recover and remain stable in the presence of sea otters.

Based on the best available science, sea otters are not to blame for the black abalone’s decline. In fact, the NMFS claims that historical overfishing and poaching, along with disease, are the prime culprits for the decline of the black abalone.

Though critical habitat for black abalone is a good step in the right direction, incredibly important species like sea otters are still struggling to survive in the increasingly polluted Californian coastal waters. Now is the time to celebrate for the additional protections afforded our coastal ecosystem through this designation, but Californians should remain vigilant in the fight for a healthy marine environment. Write your representatives to let them know you support a clean coastal environment so that wildlife, like the black abalone and the sea otter, can thrive.

How to Make Your Voice Heard and End the No-Otter Zone!

picture 1 How to Make Your Voice Heard and End the No Otter Zone!
As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to end the No-Otter Zone off the coast of Southern California, you have a chance to make your voice heard!

You can be sure that this proposed rule will meet stiff opposition from those who fear increased competition from sea otters. But people like you can help bring clarity to the discussion. The benefits of returning sea otters to Southern California far outweigh the associated costs of increased fishing competition. Furthermore, countless studies conclude that maintaining the No-Otter Zone is detrimental to the southern sea otter recovery by increasing and concentrating the threats that sea otters are facing today to a geographically narrow range.

That’s why we, and the otters, need you to speak out!

In particular, the Fish and Wildlife Service is requesting comments concerning the following:

  1. The reasons why the southern sea otter translocation program, including the management and translocation zones and associated regulations, should or should not be terminated, including information that supports the need for any changes to the proposed rule;
  2. Current or planned activities in the subject area and their possible effects on southern sea otters that have not been adequately considered in the proposed rule, revised draft supplementary environmental impact statement (SEIS), and initial regulatory flexibility analysis (IRFA);
  3. Any foreseeable economic or other impacts resulting from the proposed termination of the southern sea otter translocation program that have not been adequately considered in the proposed rule, revised draft SEIS, and IRFA;
  4. Any substantive information on real or potential effects on southern sea otters of the proposed termination of the southern sea otter translocation program that have not been adequately considered in the proposed rule, revised draft SEIS, and IRFA; and
  5. Any actions that could be considered in lieu of, or in conjunction with, the proposed rule that would provide equivalent opportunity for the recovery of the southern sea otter.

The Fish and Wildlife Service would like to hear comments from the public on why you support sea otters expanding into the waters south of Point Conception. Your reasons can be as vague as why you personally like sea otters, or as specific as the economic and/or ecological benefits associated with sea otters. But here are some factual points that may help with your comments:

  • Sea otters once numbered in the hundreds of thousands and ranged from Baja California to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia until fur hunters decimated their population. Allowing uninhibited range expansion would be allowing otters to return to their historic home.
  • Sea otters play an important role as apex predators in the coastal environment by preying on urchins who feed on kelp.
  • When sea otters are present, kelp forests flourish and allow for an abundant diversity of life to thrive in coastal waters.
  • When absent, sea urchins dominate the ocean floor and feed voraciously on kelp which destroys the kelp ecosystem and creates “urchin barren” environments with much less productivity and biodiversity.
    • Sea otters are an important tourist attraction that could generate millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs for local economies.
    • The SNI population has not grown as expected and the original threat of an oil spill that could destroy the southern sea otter is still valid today. Allowing uninterrupted range expansion by ending the No-Otter Zone lessens the threat that a single disaster could make extinct the entire southern sea otter species.

Sea otter population growth has been the most robust in the southern part of its range in recent years, and there have been repeated incidents of large numbers of otters crossing into the No-Otter Zone. Allowing range expansion could enable more robust population growth.

There are four easy ways in which you can make your voice heard:

Sign our petition.

By signing our petition to urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to follow through and finally end the No-Otter Zone, you’ll be adding your name to possibly thousands of others who support the recovery of the southern sea otter. We’ll be sure to submit this petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service as part of our own comments. Just click here and follow the instructions on your screen.

Upload your own comments.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has made available to the public a fast and easy way to electronically send written comments on the proposed decision and associated environmental document. Just follow these 6 easy steps:

  1. Click here to go to the webpage made available to submit comments through www.Regulations.gov. In addition, click here to view the Revised Draft Supplement Environmental Impact Statement and Proposed Rule on which you are commenting.
  2. Fill out the required form and write your comment. Please be aware that there is a 20 minute time limit for this page. We suggest writing your comments first, and then copy and paste your comments in the comment box. For an example of what to include in your comment box, read our petition.
  3. Don’t forget to click Submit!

Write and mail a hardcopy of your comments.

Mail your comments to:

Public Comments Processing
Attn: FWS-R8-FHC-2011-0046
Division of Policy and Directives Management
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
4401 N. Fairfax Dr. MS 2042 – PDM
Arlington, VA 22203
Attend a public hearing and verbally make your comments. **most effective**
This is possibly the most effective way to make your comments known and your voice heard.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will be holding two separate public hearings at which you can deliver your comments or just show your support for sea otters by attending. Each public hearing will be preceded by a public information open house from 5-6PM. The floor will then be open for comments from 6-8PM. The three public hearings are:

September 27, 2011

Channel Islands National Park auditorium
1901 Spinnaker Drive
Ventura, CA 93001

Tuesday, October 4th

Fleischman Auditorium
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
2559 Puesta del Sol, 93105

Thursday, October 6th

La Feliz Room
Seymour Marine Discovery Center Long Marine Lab
100 Shaffer Rd.
Santa Cruz, CA 05060

Historically, those who oppose southern sea otter recovery in the No-Otter Zone are very vocal at these types of public hearings. Please consider showing your support for sea otters by attending a hearing! For more information, or to let us know that you will be attending, please do not hesitate to contact Friends of the Sea Otter. *  info@seaotters.org

*Please note that these are open public hearings and it is not necessary for you to inform Friends of the Sea Otter of your attendance. However, we would like to help prepare those who are willing to attend. If you would like more information on the No-Otter Zone, some suggested talking points, or to coordinate with FSO and/or other members, please contact us.

SEA OTTER ENVIRONMENTAL COALITION URGES PROMPT ACTION TO ELIMINATE NO-SEA Otter ZONE IN CALIFORNIA

 

picture 201 SEA OTTER ENVIRONMENTAL COALITION URGES PROMPT ACTION TO ELIMINATE NO SEA Otter ZONE IN CALIFORNIA

Monterey, Calif. (SEPTEMBER 22, 2010)– A coalition of five environmental organizations today cited the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to resume its process for reaching a long-delayed final determination on whether to terminate zonal management of the southern sea otter, as the groups called for the agency to move forward expeditiously with this process.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision was announced to the coalition in a September 9 letter from Ren Lohoefener, Regional Director of the Service.

The announcement comes just as one of the coalition members, Defenders of Wildlife, kicks off its Sea Otter Awareness Week, which begins on September 26 and runs through October 2 this year. To find events in your area or to learn how you can make a positive difference for sea otters, visit www.saveseaotters.org.

Another coalition member, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, will host its annual “Otter Days” weekend on September 25 and 26. Visitors to the aquarium can meet sea otter researchers, participate in family programs and events, win special prizes, and learn how to help save sea otters. For more information, see www.montereybayaquarium.org/vi/vi_events/vi_events_otter_days.aspx.

Currently, a no-otter zone exists south of Point Conception. The zone was established in 1988 as part of a plan to translocate sea otters to San Nicolas Island to help achieve species recovery under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Fish and Wildlife Service subsequently determined that natural expansion of the sea otter range south of Point Conception is necessary to achieve recovery of the species, but it never completed its decision whether to eliminate the no-otter zone.

In September 2009, five environmental groups [Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Sea Otter, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Ocean Public Trust Initiative Project of the International Marine Mammal Project of the Earth Island Institute, and The Humane Society of the United States] again reached out to the Service and urged it to take action. In meetings with the Service, and in subsequent letters, the groups strongly endorsed an end to zonal management and recommended that the San Nicolas Island population be left in place. The process to consider those issues will now resume, according to Lohoefener.  Lohoefener announced that another supplemental draft environmental impact statement would be released.  He explained that the groups have “many decades of experience with respect to sea otter conservation, and the Service highly values their views on this topic.”

In response, Zack Bradford, Policy Analyst for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said: “We are pleased that the Service has jump-started the decision-making process that was abandoned by the previous Administration. If sea otters thrive again, the entire marine ecosystem will benefit. Our coalition will continue to press for a prompt final decision.”

An update on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s procedure for coming to a final decision on the no-otter zone will be provided during Sea Otter Awareness Week programs.

Contact: Jason Lutterman, Friends of the Sea Otter, (831) 915-3275; Zack Bradford, Monterey Bay Aquarium, (831) 644-4800; Jim Curland, Defenders of Wildlife, (831) 726-9010.

FSO Continues to Fight for the Otter’s Right to Expand

In recent decades, Friends of the Sea Otter has been adamant about protecting the population of sea otters at San Nicholas Island and providing them with the freedom to move and expand in the waters of Southern California. Currently a Fishery Management Zone surrounds San Nicholas Island, where a robust population of sea otters is only just now becoming established after the Fish and Wild Service transported them there from their mother range on the central coast more than 20 years ago. The Management Zone is effectively a no-otter zone where otters from San Nicholas Island and the mother range are captured and removed if they happen to accidentally swim through it. The no-otter zone covers most of the Southern Californian coast, from Point Conception to the Mexican border, with the exception of the kelp forests around San Nicholas Island. The problem this no-otter zone creates for the expansion of sea otters has been the focus of a dialogue between the Friends of the Sea Otter and its partners, the US Fish and Wild Service, and the Navy.

On Tuesday, July 13th, representatives from Friends of the Sea Otter, on its members’ behalf, and its partners were welcomed to a tour of the naval facilities of San Clemente and San Nicholas Islands off the coast of Los Angeles, California. The goal of the tour was to 1.) survey the impact of naval operations on the coastal habitats of the islands, and 2.) continue the conversation about the Translocation Plan and the no-otter zone. San Clemente Island, though not supporting a sea otter population presently, has potential sea otter habitat should the otters at San Nicholas Island be allowed into the no-otter zone.

post FSO Continues to Fight for the Otter’s Right to ExpandThough the islands play an important strategic role in the Navy’s goal of national security, both are rich in wildlife and natural resources, which the Navy takes seriously. Extensive natural resource programs on both islands focus on protecting the environment from Navy operations while working to restore habitats and species that were damaged in the past. The natural resource conservation program on San Nicholas Island in particular is sensitive to marine mammals of all kinds and has changed whole policies to accommodate different species. In one case, a large dock and crane were even assembled to unload supplies from ships and thus bypass a beach that is important to elephant seals and sea lions. Similarly, a program to monitor the sea otters that inhabit the island’s extensive kelp forests keeps track of any reactions the otters may have to Navy operations and exercises. Because of these conservation programs, Navy operations seem to pose no threat to the current sea otter population or to the prospective population growth around the island.

The question remains, though, on how to proceed with ending the no-otter zone surrounding San Nicholas Island and allow the sea otters there and in the mother range the opportunity to expand. Friends of the Sea Otter will continue to work for its members to end this no-otter zone and finally allow sea otters the right to swim where they please and expand their dangerously narrow range. Only when sea otters are allowed this freedom will the species truly have the opportunity it deserves to expand and thrive.

The Scope and Danger of Californian Offshore Oil Drills

oil The Scope and Danger of Californian Offshore Oil Drills

In light of the pending success of capping the 3 month-long oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it is a good idea to look at California’s offshore oil production. Though not necessarily known for its petroleum resources, California has sizeable offshore oil production. Thirty-two offshore oil extraction sites dot the Californian coast, most of which can be seen from the shore, and produce over 100,000 barrels of oil a day. In 2008, offshore oil wells produced 16% of the oil demanded by California.(1)

The rules regarding offshore oil production are slightly complicated. Because California only technically owns waters up to 3 nautical miles from the shore while the federal government owns the rest, both Sacramento and Washington, DC have the ability to sell leases to oil wells.

The state government has had a moratorium on new offshore leases since the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. A similar explosion of natural gas like the one that happened on the Deepwater Horizon drill spilled 200,000 gallons a day for more than a week. Over 750 square miles of Californian coastal water was affected by the spill, and 35 miles of coastline and beach from Rincorn Point to Goleta saw thick tar-like oil coat its shores.

Though there were reports of oil as far north as Santa Rosa, the oil slick of the Santa Barbara oil spill would not have been in the current range of the Southern Sea Otter. An accident the size of the Deepwater Horizon spill would, however, have a devastating impact on the Southern Sea Otters of the Californian coast. An interesting website called http://www.ifitwasmyhome.com/ can bring home the sheer monstrosity that is the Gulf oil spill by imposing the damaged area over any location. This simple visual shows that a spill that size could have the potential to cover the entire range of the Southern Sea Otter, which could wipe the species out.

Though oil is damaging to all sea life, Sea Otters are especially susceptible to the effects of an oil accident as they rely exclusively on their specialized fur for warmth instead of blubber. When in contact with oil, Sea Otter fur loses much of its ability to trap heat and thus exposes the animal to the cold seawater.

Up until 1984 the federal government had continued to lease rights to wells under its jurisdiction. A moratorium on drilling in federal waters since then has been renewed every year until 2008 when Congress did not continue it. An effective lawsuit filed by California had kept any new leases from being issued until the Obama administration came to power. The Obama administration has ruled out any policy of offshore drilling in California, but this policy is susceptible to changes and repeal by future administrations.

In order to make the Obama policy more permanent and thus harder for future administrations to change, a cadre of Californian congressmen has introduced H.R. 5213: The West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2010.(2) The bill would effectively ban offshore drilling on California’s outer continental shelf, which is where the federal government owns its wells.

Though domestic oil production might play a role in securing America’s oil independence in the future, the danger it poses to a fragile ecosystem like the California coast is simply to high.

(1) California Department of Conservation: Monthly oil and gas production and injection report, November 2008, PDF file, downloaded 31 July 2010.
(2) Keep track of the West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2010 on govtrack.us here: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-5213.