Sea otters swimming in Southern California waters will be considered a threatened species and receive additional protection starting early next year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that it will officially end its otter relocation program that started in 1987 to replenish Southern California’s dwindling otter population. At the time, the agency translocated 140 otters to San Nicolas Island in the Channel Islands but the move was deemed a failure as many left within a few days to return to the coast.
The program’s intention was to have a sequestered otter zone at San Nicolas where otters would be protected from oil spills, accidental deaths from commercial boating and other dangers. Coastal waters from Pt. Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border were considered an “otter-free zone” and scientists would capture and relocate otters found there using non-lethal means. However, securing a habitat at San Nicolas and moving otters from the zone proved to be ineffective and U.S. Fish and Wildlife abandoned the program in 1993.
“San Nicolas is very remote and there are lots of prey for [the otters],” said Lilian Carswell, southern sea otter recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “Trying to enforce the management zone proved tough because we were expecting them to stay where they were.”
Although the relocation program had been dormant since 1993, fishermen sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife demanding that agency revive its capture and relocate technique after about 152 otters swam en masse across the “otter-free zone” in 1998.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife won the lawsuit and declared that it would no longer restrict the otters’ movement. But it left in place the lower level of protection for the species. As a result, environmental groups including Los Angeles Waterkeeper and The Otter Project sued the agency in 2009 demanding stricter protective regulations.
“Trying to tell a marine mammal to stay on one side of an imaginary line across the water was a dumb idea,” said Steve Shimek, executive director of The Otter Project, in a statement. “This rule will not only protect sea otters from harm, but because of the otters’ critical role in the environment, it will also help restore our local ocean ecosystem.”
As a result of the suit, as of Jan. 18, 2013, sea otters can freely swim into the “otter-free zone” without threat of being removed. And, any proposed development along the coast will have to consider the impact to sea otters, protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act in Southern California as of early next year – the same protection currently granted to Central Coast otters.
The otter’s absence in Southern California waters has contributed to a proliferation of sea urchins that depleted kelp forests.
“Without the southern sea otter keeping local urchin populations in check, we are forced to temporarily mimic its role in the kelp forest with our volunteer divers,” Liz Crosson, executive director of L.A. Waterkeeper, said in a statement.
There are now about 80 otters living south of Pt. Conception and about 2,800 that inhabit the coastline from San Mateo to Santa Barbara counties, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Sea otters used to occupy much of the Pacific Rim but were almost exterminated during the fur trade. Only a small population north of Bixby Creek in Big Sur remained in the 1930s, and they have been expanding from that core group since.