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These critters are simply adorable.  

Why have these cuties been dragged into court by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), an anti-Obamacare litigant and backer of other Tea Party legal wet dreams?

According to the LA Times,

Commercial fishermen have filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for abandoning a program to create an "otter-free zone" in Southern California coastal waters that sustain shellfish industries.

The lawsuit, filed this week by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of harvesters of sea urchin, abalone and lobster south of Point Conception, accuses the agency of illegally terminating the program without congressional approval or authorization.

Do you know what an "otter-free zone" is? Me either before I stumbled across this story and dug deeper. I was more than a little gobsmacked by what I found. If you want to know the story of U.S. environmental protection of the Southern Sea otter, and how it has led to a court case filed by California environmental right wing nuts, follow me out into the tall grass.

The otter free zone was a bit of corporate welfare for commercial fishing businesses in California during the second Ronald Reagan Administration. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) implemented a rule in 1986 reserving most of California's coastal waters as an otter free zone where Southern Sea Otters became subject to trapping and relocation at government expense to one of two, limited, species management areas. Congress funded it with magical Reagan money, just like everything else. The otter zone rule was justified as a measure for the benefit of the ailing and vulnerable species. Such benefits always seemed doubtful and ultimately proved imaginary. Meanwhile California's lobster and crab and sea urchin commercial fishing fleets and seafood dependent enterprises have enjoyed sustained and growing harvests and profits.

The 1986 otter-free zone policy endured, despite unsatisfactory improvement in the health and prospects of the inhabitants of the sea otter population's two, isolated territories. Fortunately, two things eventually converged. First, from its inception, the otter zone rule had measurable targets and failure triggers. The program, over the years, failed by every one of these measures. Second, the USFWS eventually came under the Administration of a President whose policies favored having someone pull those triggers.

That required new rule making, which culminated last year, as reported here by the New York Times:

California sea otters, hunted to near extinction and more recently denied the chance to roam freely in the southern part of their coastal range, may now swim wherever they choose under a new policy (warning: PDF) announced by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.


The formal end of the otter-free zone off the coast of California, announced this week, is a victory for environmental groups that objected to any efforts to control the natural migration of the species, which ranged from the western coast of Mexico to San Francisco before the animals’ glossy pelts made them a target of 19th-century fur traders.

“It’s a watershed moment,” said Lilian Carswell, who coordinates the service’s otter recovery program from an office in Santa Cruz. “We’re embracing the return of this keystone predator to the near-shore ecosystem.”


To be sure, these animals eat a lot of seafood, as described by USFWS:

Sea Otters are about four feet long and weigh an average of 65 pounds for males and 45 pounds for females. They've got strong canines and strong molars to tear and crush their food. Their lung capacity is 2.5 times the size of land mammals of the same size. They have good eyesight and use their whiskers to sense vibrations in the water. They're known for the use of tools when eating. Because they love mollusks, sea otters will use rocks as hammers and anvils to help open the shells. Because they have no blubber, they must eat 25% of their body weight in food to maintain their high metabolism. Grooming is important as it forces air bubbles into their fur that acts as insulation (Friends of the Sea Otter).
I did some rough calculations that overestimate the annual seafood consumption of the entire Southern Sea Otter population. I call it an overestimation because it assumes the entire population is full grown adults, which cannot be the case. Here are the numbers:  
But, according to new research, not all of these critters eat just anything. Not only do these remarkable creatures carry tools with them to get food with, they form guilds with other otters that limit their diets to particular foods. The findings came from research by the U.S. Geological Survey:
New research by Tim Tinker, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Santa Cruz, California, shows that sea otters are not only voracious but highly specialized eaters, organizing themselves into groups that zero in on different prey. The findings may help scientists better understand why the sea otter comeback, never a resounding success, now appears to be sputtering.


By capturing otters and outfitting them with depth recorders and radio transmitters, Tinker and his co-workers have found they form what he calls “dietary guilds.” Deep-diving otters eat mostly abalone, urchins and Dungeness crabs. Otters diving to medium depths—say, up to 40 feet—forage for clams, worms and smaller shellfish. Still others—the junk food eaters—stay in shallow waters, filling their pouches with black snails. Mothers pass these preferences on to their pups, inducting them into their respective guilds.

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So, it appears that only a portion of otter predation will have any bearing at all on the multimillion industries that exploit the Pacific coastal waters for the same shell fish and urchins that some humans like to eat, too. In 2012, just 209 sea urchin diving operations in California took in $8,300,343 at the dock for 11,363,623 pounds of urchins. Dungeness crab take in California in 2011, was 27 million pounds valued at $30 million.

In terms of maintaining and growing and renewing fisheries, California has served the industry pretty well with a series of regulations governing methods and catch size allowances. I confidently predict that the slow expansion of a slowly growing population of sea otters into previously otter free fishing sanctuaries will never have an honestly measurable effect on fishery operations, yields and profitability. Call it a hypothesis.

It looks like there may be enough food out there in the vast blue of the Pacific for both people and Southern Sea Otters, if conscientious management of sea food resources continues. At least that is what USFWS concluded when it abandoned the failed otter-free zone program.

One last thought: How ironic is it that folks of the wing-nut political stripe of that PLF lot should go to court to stop the government from discontinuing a demonstrably failed program? Aren't they the folks usually up in arms about wasteful government spending and continuing failed programs and frivolous lawsuits. It's a damned irony trifecta.

Well, what can you expect from otter haters.

Originally posted to LeftOfYou on Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 02:04 PM PDT.

Also republished by Kitchen Table Kibitzing and Community Spotlight.

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