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. Otters are voracious eaters of shellfish.
Federal officials ended the program in January after determining that capturing and trans-locating sea otters that wander into the "otter-free zone" was hurting efforts to protect and recover the species — even as it succeeded in protecting shellfish fisheries.
The sea otter population has not risen much in recent years, as the creatures suffer from disease, parasites, inadequate food supplies, shark bites and the occasional bullet wound. An estimated 2,792 now exist off the California coast.
Tuesday, a coalition of environmental groups led by Friends of the Sea Otter announced that it would intervene in the case on behalf of federal wildlife authorities.
"The problem is that the shellfish industry flourished after sea otters were all but wiped out by the fur trade," said Jim Curland, advocacy program director of the nonprofit Friends of the Sea Otter. "Now, if the fishermen's lawsuit were to prevail, our concern is that harm, injury and even death to sea otters would follow."
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