California Sea Otters Targeted in Defense Authorization Bill

California sea otter (credit NOAA Fisheries)
The Senate will shortly be considering a provision that would allow the U.S. Navy to injure and kill California sea otters, without complying with the core wildlife statutes protecting this threatened species. 

Recently, the House added language to this year’s defense authorization bill that outright exempts the Navy from two federal laws, the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, for any harm it causes sea otters off its Southern California bases.  The effect would be to thwart conservation efforts there, relieving the military of its basic legal obligation to minimize impacts on this species to the extent practicable.  Senator Reid says the new authorization bill, which is now before the Senate, will come to a floor vote by Thanksgiving.

The Navy doesn’t need the new language.  Military training is already treated as a special case in both statutes, and exemptions are available if push comes to shove and national security is at issue.  What the Navy is stumping for is a solution in search of a problem.  The situation would be absurd if a threatened species weren’t at stake and if Congress weren’t about to bore a hole through two landmark environmental laws.

Notably, the Navy’s request also runs counter to the administration’s important new efforts at sea otter conservation.  For years, the furry mammals were subject to a misguided “translocation” policy that removed any otters found off Southern California and transported them north of Point Conception.  Last December, the administration finally recognized the policy for what it was—a failure that undermined the species’ recovery—and formally ended it.  But the Navy seems unwilling to give up an advantage, even a needless one.

If you’re from California, you can let your Senators know what you think of this terrible provision and ask them to keep it out of the final Defense bill. Call Sen. Diane Feinstein’s office at (202) 224-3841, and Sen. Barbara Boxer’s at (202) 224-3553.