By Chris Clarke
A Defense Authorization bill now on the floor of the U.S. Senate would exempt the Navy from environmental laws protecting California's southern sea otter population, and environmental activists are urging the language be stripped from the bill.
The bill, expected to reach a floor vote in late November, would exempt the Navy from provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in two newly declared "Southern Sea Otter Military Readiness Areas" along the Ventura and San Diego coasts, sharply reducing the level of protection the otters enjoy.
The southern sea otter, Enhydra lutris nereis, is listed as Threatened under the ESA. The subspecies' numbers seem to have plateaued in recent years after an encouraging rebound from a low of 11 animals in the early 20th Century. But the animals have been greatly extending their range since the 1990s, especially in the waters off the Southern California coast.
Restricted to California, the southern sea otter's natural range extends from Pigeon Point on the San Mateo coast down to Ventura County. Until last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had attempted to restrict southern sea otter populations south of Point Conception to the coast of San Nicolas Island, where the agency had relocated about 140 otters in the late 1980s as a hedge against oil spill damage to the mainland coast population. USFWS declared the rest of the coast from Point Conception to the Mexican border a "no-otter zone." Otters from farther north along the coast who migrated into the "no otter zone" were relocated. The idea was to manage conflicts between the otters and south coast fisheries.
USFWS now bluntly characterizes that project as a "failure." Sea otters died from handling stress while being relocated, and many of the relocated otters simply swam back to where they wanted to be in the first place. Of the otters moved to San Nicolas Island, for example, many simply headed back to the mainland.
In 1998, in a charming bit of marine mammal civil disobedience, 50 otters swum en masse into the no-otter zone, underscoring the point that attempts to restrict the animals to one side of an invisible line in the ocean were doomed. In the meantime, threats mounted to the otters in areas where they were legal. Diseases ranging from toxocaria from cat litter to cyanobacteria growing in shellfish to simple toxic pollution take a serious toll on the animals. In 2010, hundreds of dead sea otters washed up on the shore, some dead of disease, others having apparently died of shark attacks -- unusual, as sharks generally find otters too lean to bother with. More....