“Pursuing reintroduction will require collaboration with all stakeholders, and we look forward to supporting FWS in leading that process. We welcome strong leadership from tribal partners and will have to resolve or mitigate longstanding conflicts with fisheries. But we can do it – and the otters, the ecosystems and the coastal communities will all benefit from our collective efforts.” 

Andrew Johnson, California representative
SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week issued its finding that the southern sea otter will retain its threatened status under the Endangered Species Act. Defenders of Wildlife applauds this decision as it follows an agency species status assessment triggered by a delisting petition from several California fishery industry groups in 2021.  

“Threats facing southern sea otters and coastal ecosystems are getting worse, not better,” said Defenders’ California Representative Andrew Johnson. “Today’s announcement must be followed by direct management action to restore sea otters to their historical range and reduce the fatal effects of climate change.”  

The FWS analyzed the southern sea otter’s status based on five factors, including the destruction or curtailment of a species’ habitat or range, levels of disease and predation, and natural or human-caused existential threats. Agency population projections indicate that the species “is likely to become in danger of extinction throughout all of its range,” a conclusion in direct conflict with the petitioners’ argument that the 2019 population count signifies recovery.  

The Pacific Legal Foundation, counsel for California Sea Urchin Commission and Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, argued in the petition that the southern sea otter no longer requires protections under the ESA because its numbers have increased and its range has expanded since ESA listing in 1977. However, those criteria alone do not justify delisting the species. 

Climate change and other anthropogenic effects have increased harmful algal blooms and decreased kelp canopy cover, conditions that have contributed to high sea otter disease rates and the rise in white shark attacks. These impacts have intensified since the southern sea otter recovery plan was revised in 2003 and will continue to hinder the species’ ability to sustain itself in the future, according to the FWS. 

In 2021, Congress directed FWS to assess the feasibility of reintroducing southern sea otters to portions of the west coast, where they once thrived as part of a range that stretched from Japan to Mexico. The feasibility assessment concluded that reintroduction was feasible and would have significant benefits for sea otters and nearshore marine ecosystems, but that additional information was needed before considering next steps.  

“Pursuing reintroduction will require collaboration with all stakeholders, and we look forward to supporting FWS in leading that process,” Johnson said. “We welcome strong leadership from tribal partners and will have to resolve or mitigate longstanding conflicts with fisheries. But we can do it – and the otters, the ecosystems and the coastal communities will all benefit from our collective efforts.” 

Reintroducing the southern sea otter to areas within the species’ historical range would allow the population to achieve true recovery under the ESA, help restore degraded habitat along the northern coast of California and contribute value to the economies of coastal communities. Defenders is leading a conceptual reintroduction planning effort and will provide a reintroduction framework to the FWS in early 2024.  

Defenders of Wildlife is celebrating 75 years of protecting all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With a nationwide network of nearly 2.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.

Media Contact

Communications Specialist
jcovey@defenders.org

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