U.S. Supreme Court Declines Sea Otter Case – Cementing the Termination of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “No-Otter Zone”

October 29, 2018

Washington, DC —  In a major victory for threatened southern sea otters, the U.S. Supreme Court today denied a petition for certiorari to consider the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision restoring protections for sea otters in Southern California.  The Ninth Circuit decision is now the last word on this case, putting an end to years of litigation.  Otters will be welcome to populate their entire historic range along the California coast, while receiving protections under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

On March 1, 2018, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion rejecting a challenge by commercial fishing organizations to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decision to terminate a program that harmed otters.  The Environmental Defense Center (EDC), The Otter Project, and Los Angeles Waterkeeper intervened in the case on behalf of the FWS.  On June 4, 2018, the fishing industry sought Supreme Court review, and the Court’s denial of that review marks the final word on this case: the sea otter victory stands.

“We applaud this victory for sea otters—the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case puts an end to the many years of litigation in which the industry sought to reinstate the ‘no-otter zone’—a program that harmed the very species it was meant to protect,” said Linda Krop, Chief Counsel with the Environmental Defense Center, which represents The Otter Project and Los Angeles Waterkeeper in this case.  “This decision will allow the threatened southern sea otters to reinhabit their historic range in southern California so they can fully recover and come off the endangered species list.”

The “no-otter zone” was created in 1987 as part of a larger effort to recover threatened sea otters, by establishing a thriving otter population at San Nicolas Island, and in exchange to satisfy the fishing industry, excluding otters from an area extending from Pt. Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border.  Unfortunately, this plan immediately proved deadly to otters.  Of the 140 sea otters moved to San Nicolas Island, all but 11 either disappeared or died trying to return to their home waters or during translocation.

In response to a lawsuit filed by EDC and The Otter Project, the FWS ultimately terminated the failed “no-otter zone” back in 2012.  This important FWS decision allowed sea otters to begin to regain a foothold in their natural range in Southern California – an outcome vital to the recovery of the keystone species.

In its decision, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the environmental groups that the fishing industry’s position to maintain the “no-otter zone” makes “no sense whatsoever” because it would require the FWS to implement a program after determining it was “counter-productive and harmed, rather than protected, threatened or endangered species.”  This ruling affirmed two lower court decisions which upheld the FWS’s 2012 decision to end the “no-otter zone.”

“The fishing groups were insisting on an unnatural, unhealthy system serving their own narrow commercial interests.  With this victory, otters will slowly return and change the system back to the healthier and more complete ecosystem it once was, with bigger kelp forests and more fin-fish,” said Steve Shimek, Executive Director of The Otter Project.

“Our marine ecosystem has been out of balance for decades.  Removing the ‘no-otter zone,’ restoring kelp forests, and enforcing marine protected areas are critical actions for reversing this degradation,” said Bruce Reznik, Executive Director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper.  “The science shows that our fisheries will be much more robust once our habitats are protected and the natural balance of the food chain is restored.”

The species is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Sea otter recovery is impossible with the “no-otter zone” in place. 

The Ninth Circuit decision is entitled California Sea Urchin Commission v. Bean, 883 F.3d 1173 (9th Cir. 2018), as amended (Apr. 18, 2018).


The Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties. Since 1977, EDC has empowered community-based organizations to advance environmental protection. EDC’s focus areas include protection of the Santa Barbara Channel, ensuring clean water, preserving open space and wildlife, and addressing climate and energy. Learn more about EDC at www.EnvironmentalDefenseCenter.org.

The Otter Project protects our watersheds and coastal oceans for the benefit of California sea otters and humans through science-based policy and advocacy. Founded in 1998, The Otter Project has worked to improve nearshore ocean health and resolve the barriers to sea otter recovery.  Learn more about The Otter Project at www.otterproject.org.

Founded in 1993, Los Angeles Waterkeeper’s mission is to protect and restore Santa Monica Bay, San Pedro Bay, and adjacent waters through enforcement, fieldwork, and community action. We work to achieve this goal through litigation and regulatory programs that ensure water quality protections in waterways throughout L.A. County. LA Waterkeeper’s Litigation & Advocacy, Marine, and Water Quality teams conduct interconnected projects that serve this mission. Learn more about LA Waterkeeper at www.lawaterkeeper.org.


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