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.

Alaskan Bill Threatens to Introduce New Fur Trade

On July 30th, 2011 Representative Don Young (R. – Alaska) introduced H.R. 2714, a bill that threatens to reauthorize the sea otter fur trade for segments of the Alaskan sea otter range. Though cleverly authored as if the bill were aimed at improving the native people’s ability to practice their cultural traditions, Mr. Young’s public comments and actions have revealed the real purpose of the bill: to institute a management plan for Alaskan sea otters on behalf of fishing groups.

The Alaskan Sea Otters

The bill only targets the southcentral and southwest DPS for management (the Alaskan sea otter range is divided into three populations segments (DPS) the southeast, southcentral, and southwest populations). The southwest population is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The southcentral DPS is perhaps the most successful sea otter population at approximately 12,774 otters. However, these sea otters are not without their challenges. In 1989, the Exxon-Valdez oil spill killed nearly 4,000 sea otters. The sea otter population and parts of the nearshore ecosystem are recovering slowly from this disaster.

The Southeast DPS

The southeast DPS is the successful result of a translocation program in the 1960s that established 13 colonies with approximately 9,136 of sea otters, but growth has been unequal within this range. where population numbers have increased significantly in the southern segment and within Glacier Bay National Park in the northern segment only. Outside of Glacier Bay, the growth rate has been struggling.

 Alaskan Bill Threatens to Introduce New Fur Trade
Legal Hunting of Sea Otters

Although the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) outlaws the killing of a marine mammal and the trading of its parts, an exception permits the unlimited and non-wasteful harvesting of sea otters by native peoples for subsistence and traditional purposes. It is lawful for native peoples to hunt sea otters and sell their parts, so long as the parts are sufficiently modified in a traditional fashion (to produce, for example, traditional handicrafts and garments). Selling unmodified sea otter pelts remains illegal under the current law.

A 2009 study shows that 8% of the northern segment of the southeast DPS population (outside of Glacier Bay, where hunting is illegal) is hunted each year. Because evidence of other common threats to sea otters (predation, pollution, disease and food limitation) is lacking, otter experts believe that the high harvest rate may be the cause for the decreased population growth rates of the sea otters in this region.  In 2010 alone, 601 sea otters were harvested from the southeast DPS; the highest annual harvest since 1993 and a 55% increase over the annual harvest in 2003.

The Threat

The Don Young bill threatens to increase the harvest levels even more, stripping the requirement under the MMPA that harvested sea otter parts be fashioned into a traditional craft by native peoples.  This opens the market for the trade of plain, unmodified sea otter pelts.  Nothing in the bill would restrict pelts from being sold to businesses and then be fashioned into coats or other commercial items.

The bill rather feeds the interest of Alaskan fisheries, creating a de facto management plan for northern sea otters. Because fishing groups compete with sea otters for their product, an indirect management plan to stabilize or reduce sea otter growth benefits them greatly.

The bill is disastrous for sea otters, the environment, and the people of Alaska. The sea otter’s role in maintaining kelp ecosystems are well known (and described in the No-Otter Zone article of this newsletter), providing numerous ecological and economic benefits to the nearshore environment. The sea otter is also a well-known tourist attraction in Alaska.

If this bill passes and harvest rates increase further, all progress made since the 1960s translocation programs to reintroduce otters and maintain a healthy and balanced nearshore environment that benefits the native peoples will be lost.

How you can help

This bill represents a major threat to sea otter recovery in Alaska. The fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries nearly destroyed the species. Write to your elected officials and urge them to oppose H.R. 2714 and S. 1453 (its identical counterpart in the Senate), the bill that reauthorized the fur trade. Visit www.seaotters.org/takeaction.html to learn how.

 

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.

Say No to Plastic and Styro

 Say No to Plastic and Styro

Photo from Coastrider.com, taken by Ian Butler

What’s one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to help save the sea otters?  Protecting their habitat by reducing pollution. Such pollutants that can be easily controlled include plastic and Polystyrene Foam, more commonly known as Styrofoam.

Most people are familiar with Styrofoam and its uses: disposable food ware you get for your restaurant left overs, or that morning coffee on your way to work. What most people don’t know is how often Styrofoam (and plastic), even if it’s disposed of properly, finds its way to the ocean where it is ingested by marine life.

Though it may begin as a cup or bag, after its disposal Styrofoam and plastic embarks on a journey where it is broken down by the elements to a microscopic level (this can be done even in a landfill), caught by the wind and whisked out to sea where it is shielded from ultraviolet sunrays (which would cause decomposition) and then ingested by sea life, including mammals like the sea otter. And its no secret the damage Styrofoam and plastic can do to an animal if ingested. Not only can the particles poison the critter with PCB and other hydrophobic elements that it contains, it is very difficult for the plastic particles to be expelled by the body. So in effect, plastic and Styrofoam, if ingested by an animal like the sea otter, stays in the stomach indefinitely and slowly causes it to starve.

Though the state of California failed to pass the Styrofoam ban (AB 1358) in 2009 and the most recent plastic bag ban proposal (AB 1998), many cities across the state have taken upon themselves to enact bans of their own. Over 30 cities in California alone have enacted Styrofoam bans for restaurant take-out food ware. Four cities have banned plastic bag use by supermarkets (San Francisco, Palo Alto, Fairfax and Malibu) while Washington, DC has instituted a 5 cent tax for each plastic bag to dissuade use.

Its clear that while a state-wide ban may be politically impossible for now, local governments are paving the way towards a more sustainable future – a future that includes a healthy marine habitat and a strong sea otter population.

Do your part – contact your local government officials and tell them you support a ban on harmful plastic and Styrofoam in your own community.

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.