H.R. 4043 moves to House floor for vote

 H.R. 4043 moves to House floor for vote

H.R. 4043 strips federal protections for sea otters in Southern California.

An edited version of a bill that would have detrimental effects on sea otters has passed the Natural Resources Committee and is now headed to the House floor for a vote as an amendment to H.R. 4310, the Defense Authorization Act.

The bill, called H.R. 4043 and originally introduced to the House of Representatives by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R – Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties), is worded differently than the original version that was introduced back in February. Friends of the Sea Otter and our partners, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Defenders of Wildlife, succeeded in altering language that would have changed the monitoring program already in place for sea otters at San Nicolas Island.

However, commercial fishing special interests have insisted on replacing text which would have required the federal government to maintain commercial shellfish harvest levels at current levels despite an expanding sea otter range. The new and unprecedented language instead supersedes the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and strips protections for sea otters that live south of Point Conception.

The new language would essentially authorize fishermen to continue irresponsible fishing practices that have been proven to ensnare, trap, and kill sea otters. Normally the protections afforded the threatened southern sea otter under the ESA and MMPA would prohibit “incidental take” that might occur when a sea otter is trapped in large-scale fishing gear, in order to protect the species.

H.R. 4043’s new language, for the first time in history, exempts sea otters in Southern California from these protections under the country’s most landmark wildlife protection laws. This is not only disastrous for sea otters, but the bill also sets a horrible precedent for all species protected under the ESA and MMPA that might prove to be an “inconvenience” to a well-connected special interest group.

The bill will be voted on as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization when it reaches the floor of the House of Representatives.

(5/18/2012) UPDATE: House passed HR 4310, including the Gallegly amendment stripping Southern California’s sea otters of incidental take protections under Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Click to read FSO’s Press Release. FSO will continue to monitor and oppose the Gallegly amendment in the Senate.

Dispatches from the Capitol

 Dispatches from the CapitolOn Monday March 26th, Friends of the Sea Otter sent me to advocate on behalf of the voiceless sea otters at the annual Ocean Day event held at the California State Capitol in Sacramento and hosted by Environment California. The day for FSO would be spent educating and informing state lawmakers about sea otters (in particular, the no-otter zone), the ocean environment, and how California can continue to lead the way in protecting our coastal resources.

Early in the morning, dozens of passionate ocean advocates gathered in conference room 444 for a kick-off speech by ocean champion Assemblymember Julia Brownley (D – Santa Monica). Her stories of fighting for state-wide bans on plastic bags and styrofoam take-out food containers, both of which are extremely harmful to the ocean environment and cost millions a year to clean up, energized and motivated us for a full day of ocean advocacy – especially since coffee was not allowed in that room (the room is almost 150 years old, after all!).

Though as important as they are, sea otters were just one topic my particular group (all attendees were broken into several themed groups) discussed with California state legislators and their staff. Working with Oceana, the Surfrider Foundation, and Save Our Shores, I had a

 Dispatches from the Capitol

Assemblymember Julia Brownley kicks off Ocean Day

chance to partake in a discussion covering a wide variety of ocean issues, from plastic pollution to marine protected areas (did you know that by the end of this year, all of California’s coast will be protected by a network of new underwater parks?!) and California’s potential first official state marine reptile (the leatherback sea turtle). Tackling all of these issues is important to create a healthy ocean habitat, for sea otters and other wildlife as well as to preserve the economic value of the ocean itself.

When we weren’t lost in the web of hallways and elevators that is the capitol building, we spent our time talking up the issues with legislators who were very receptive to hearing our messages. One thing I have noticed by working on ending the no-otter zone these past years is that just by educating and informing people that this exclusion zone exists almost always guarantees their support, and I was pleased to find this rule held true with lawmakers and their staff in the state capitol. The no-otter zone shocked nearly every office I spoke with and many offered their support to end the no-otter zone and free the sea otter.

By the end of the day we had met with six legislator offices, two legislators themselves, dozens of other ocean advocates, and tasted seafood ice cream provided by Ben and Jerry’s (not for everyone!). Other groups, including the otter-advocates at The Otter Project and our friends at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, worked hard that day too for a combined total of 96 California state legislator offices being informed of ocean issues and our cause. With only 120 total state legislators, we spoke to nearly 80% of the total elected body in Sacramento!

Moving forward from this long day of activism, FSO welcomes more cooperation from important state legislators and our other ocean advocacy friends as we work to protect our coastal habitat for people and wildlife. To learn more about the no-otter zone, please click here and be sure to visit our friends at Oceana, the Surfrider Foundation, and Save Our Shores to learn about the important issues they work on as well.

Seeing the big picture

 Seeing the big pictureIn a recent editorial published in the L.A. Times, sea otter expert Dr. James Estes urged for science-based policy decisions, alluding to the growing national debate on natural sea otter range expansion and the ensuing conflicts with the commercial shellfish industry, both in southern California and in Alaska.

Often the debate is loosely framed as the “cute and cuddly” sea otters vs. the economic interests of a small group of shellfishers. Dr. Estes suggests reframing the issue and focusing the debate on a more science-based evaluation of the benefits sea otters provide for the coastal marine environment. Estes claims “the seemingly conflicting values of preserving an important element of nature’s biodiversity versus our reluctance to incur the associated costs can be at least partly resolved through a better understanding of the greater ecological services provided by many of these animals.”

Along with being a cultural icon admired by many for their cute appearance, Estes suggests that decision-makers need to account for the many ecosystem services that otters provide to coastal communities. These are tangible economic benefits for society as a whole, rather than short-term profits for a few shellfishers.

Sea otters, for example, are long known to promote the growth of kelp forests by feeding on sea urchins. Without a natural predator to control their numbers, urchins can overgraze kelp forests, sometimes resulting in “urchin barrens” – underwater deserts that are largely devoid of life. Kelp forests, in turn, serve as habitat for many other valuable marine species and play a role in dampening waves and slowing coastal erosion and shoreline recession.

Estes concludes: “An ever-growing body of research shows that the ecological and economic influences of predators in nature, from sea otters to wolves, extend well beyond the things they eat.” Though sea otters receive plenty of well-deserved attention based on their pleasing appearance, focusing on their integral role to a healthy ecosystem and the services that ecosystem provides to mankind is a point worth making when confronted with the narrow economic interests of commercial shellfishers.

FSO is committed to communicating science to the public as well as lawmakers as a way to promote sea otter friendly policy. This has been our central strategy to end the no-otter zone and to oppose further damaging harvests of sea otters in Alaska. FSO hopes that lawmakers today will consider all aspects of the sea otter when forming public policy and welcome otters back to our coastal environment rather than excluding them to protect a select few fishers.

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.

2011: Year of the Sea Otter

Though 2011 was officially the year of the rabbit (according to the Chinese calendar), we’d like to think “The Year of the Sea Otter” would be just as fitting. This past year, Friends of the Sea Otter has made great gains toward conserving our favorite keystone species and ensuring its future survival and prosperity.

At the beginning of the year FSO partnered with Defenders of Wildlife, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Ocean Public Trust Initiative (a project of the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project) to assess and comment on the Draft Recovery Plan for the Southwest Alaska Distinct Population Segment of the Northern Sea Otter. FSO supports an ecosystem-based approach to reversing the declining trend of the southwest population and recognizes the importance of a solid recovery plan. To that end, we urged the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider all aspects of the Southwest Alaska population’s decline and to reflect on the causes for increased orca predation on sea otters.

FSO began the Yampah Island Project, a partnership with the Elkhorn Slough Foundation and the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve to monitor the unique sea otter behavior within the inland waters of the slough for research, education, and outreach efforts. The Project includes the construction of two remote-controlled cameras mounted on self-sustaining monitoring platforms that will broadcast live video feeds of the otters to the internet and the Elkhorn Slough Visitor Center. These cameras will act as unobtrusive windows into the natural lives of sea otters living in remote areas of the slough that are normally only accessible by boat.

In June and October, FSO hosted meetings with our members in Monterey to explain our current projects and solicit feedback. Those members who attended were not only enthusiastic about the current trajectory of the organization, but also very willing to help increase FSO’s outreach and education capacity. Many are now active volunteers for Friends of the Sea Otter who engage the community on behalf of FSO and continue to work for the recovery of the species.

During the summer FSO began a grassroots campaign to end the No-Otter Zone off the coast of Southern California in response to the release of a revised draft supplement to the environmental impact statement (DSEIS) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). In the DSEIS, FWS proposed ending the No-Otter Zone and leaving those otters currently living within the zone untouched. Thousands of our members supported the proposed decision by writing letters to FWS and attending public hearings, vastly outnumbering those few fishing interests that oppose the recovery of the species.

In September the State of California officially announced that the Sea Otter Fund would appear on the 2011 California State Income Tax form. The Fund is an important financial source for researchers working at the California Department of Fish and Game and the California Coastal Conservancy who perform studies on the southern sea otter. The Fund is supported solely through voluntary contributions of tax refunds by checking the appropriate box on California State Income Tax forms. This was an important victory – over $330,000 was raised in 2011 alone.

Sea Otter Awareness Week was held between September 25 and October 1, 2011. FSO partnered with Monterey Bay Kayaks to offer members discounts on kayak rentals to view sea otters in their natural habitat in Monterey Bay and the Elkhorn Slough. We also participated in “Otter Days” at the Monterey Bay Aquarium by engaging aquarium visitors and discussing sea otter issues and ways the general public can help ensure the recovery of the species.

In November, FSO began its campaign to block H.R. 2714, a bill that would legalize a new fur trade based on the harvesting of Alaska’s sea otters. The bill would legalize the sale of unaltered sea otter pelts to non-natives and further incentivize sea otter harvests, possibly undoing all the progress sea otters have made in Alaska. We are seeking members and the general public to write to their legislators and oppose the bill when it comes to a vote in the House of Representatives.

Throughout the winter, FSO engaged the public at numerous events ranging from the premier of Otter 501 (a documentary by Sea Studios that focuses on a rehabilitated otter pup from the Monterey Bay Aquarium) to a fundraising gala held by Spector Dance to promote their new performance titled Ocean and a Community Day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. By maintaining a constant presence in the community, we hope to inspire our fellow neighbors to do their part for the sea otter.

 2011: Year of the Sea Otter

MBA Community Day, Image Courtesy of Mike Baronial, FSO Member

Finally, near the end of the year, FSO began to reach out to sea otter researchers and organizations to connect our volunteers with opportunities to spot and observe sea otters in the wild while making meaningful contributions to current sea otter research and census efforts. This would add to the important efforts of FSO volunteers that are already actively working with the California Department of Health in collecting water samples in sea otter habitat to analyze for biotoxins. Details on what this otter spotting volunteer program will entail will come in early 2012.

As you can see, this past year has been an active year for FSO, our members, and sea otters. Looking forward, we can expect another vigorous year in 2012. The Yampah Island Project is only just getting started and we look forward to having our first look through the remote monitoring stations by the end of next year. We also look forward to continuing our work with stakeholders and partners to ensure the Fish and Wildlife Service ends the No-Otter Zone without harming sea otters at San Nicolas Island. Our campaign against the bill that would legalize a new fur trade in Alaska has only just begun, and we expect to hit the ground running with a new Otter Spotting volunteer program in the Monterey Area early next year.

To that end, we cannot continue our vital work without your support. FSO relies heavily upon the generosity of our members as we work to ensure the survival and recovery of all sea otters. Please consider making a contribution today that will go toward our current and future projects and programs and help us save the sea otter.

 2011: Year of the Sea Otter

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.