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 it would officially end its otter relocation program, which started in 1987. At that time, the agency relocated 140 otters to San Nicolas Island in the Channel Islands, but many left within a few days to return to the coast.
The program was intended to create a sequestered otter zone at San Nicolas to protect the creatures from oil spills, commercial boats and other dangers. Coastal waters from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border were considered an “otter-free zone.” Scientists would capture and relocate otters found there using non-lethal means. However, securing a habitat at San Nicolas and moving otters there proved 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, a 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 has been dormant since 1993, fishermen sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife demanding the 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 it would no longer restrict the otters’ movement. But it didn't add any laws to protect the species. As a result, environmental groups including Los Angeles Waterkeeper and the Otter Project sued the agency in 2009 demanding stricter protections.
“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, on Jan. 18, 2013, sea otters can once again freely swim into the “otter-free zone” without threat of being removed. And any proposed development along the coast must consider possible effects on sea otters, which will soon be protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act in Southern California – the same protection currently granted to Central Coast otters.
The otters' 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 Point 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.