California Man Sentenced for Harassing Federally Threatened Southern Sea Otter, Violating Endangered Species Act

NEWS RELEASE: November 12, 2015
Media Contact: Ashley Spratt, 805-644-1766 ext. 369 ashley_spratt@fws.gov

A California man has been sentenced to 150 hours of community service, a $500 fine, and six months of probation, following intentional harassment of a southern sea otter in Moss Landing, California. Richard Niswonger, 71, of Moss Landing, California pleaded guilty and was sentenced by United States Magistrate Judge Nathanael M. Cousins on September 11, 2015, for the taking of a federally threatened southern sea otter, a Class B Misdemeanor violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In December 2014, state and federal authorities responded to a report of Niswonger discharging an air rifle in the direction of and at southern sea otters at Moss Landing Harbor along the central California coast. Niswonger confessed to law enforcement officers that the otter pup had been crying for weeks and that he was tired and annoyed from having to hear it. Witnesses heard the young sea otter crying the evening of the incident, and saw Niswonger aim and shoot at the sea otter.  In May 2015, Niswonger was charged, and in September 2015 he pleaded guilty to knowingly harassing a southern sea otter by shooting his air rifle in its direction.

Under the ESA, it is unlawful for any person to “take” any federally threatened or endangered fish or wildlife species without special permitting.  “Take” is defined by the ESA as to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.

Following the sentencing, Jill Birchell, Special Agent in Charge for the Pacific Southwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, said, “We are pleased with the outcome of this case. Harassing federally threatened or endangered wildlife is a crime.  People should be aware that their actions, whether intentional or not, can have significant consequences to sea otters and could lead to federal charges.”

The case was the result of an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.  It was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonas Lerman, of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California.

Sea otters can be found in nearshore areas along the California, Washington and Alaska coasts, including areas of high human activity, such as harbors. In addition to ESA protection, southern sea otters are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits harassing, hunting, capturing, or killing marine mammals. Approaching a sea otter so closely that it changes its behavior may constitute a violation of this law.

The Service recommends the following guidelines for the safety of both people and southern sea otters:

Keep a safe distance from sea otters and other wildlife. If the otter notices you, you are too close and should back away. Kayakers should avoid disturbing resting sea otters by keeping at least 50 feet away and passing parallel to the otters.
Keep pets on a leash on and around docks and harbors, and never allow interactions, even if the animals appear to be playing.
Never feed sea otters or other wildlife. Wild animals that are fed can become aggressive.

Southern sea otters were listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1977. During the 18th and 19th centuries, sea otters were hunted for their pelts, and by the early 1900s, the species was believed to be extinct in California. A remnant colony was discovered along the Big Sur coast in the 1930s, and the current California population has grown from the slow expansion of that colony to around 3,000 individuals. The California population prior to exploitation is thought to have numbered about 16,000 animals.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. Visit us at http://ventura.fws.gov.

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Seaotters.com is dedicated to raising awareness about California's threatened sea otters and the role research plays in the species recovery and conservation. It's a collaboration of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, U.C. Santa Cruz, U.C. Davis, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, among others. Seaotters.com is also home of the world's first HD live stream of southern sea otters in the wild.