Sea Otter, © Roy Toft / National Geographic Stock

Room To Move

Sierra Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney

Like many animals under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the southern sea otter has had a long and bumpy road to recovery. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this population of otters was hunted to near extinction, bringing a population of approximately 16,000 down to an estimated 50 individuals, and struggling to rebound to today’s estimated to 2,800. Though the population’s historic range once stretched from Alaska all the way down the Pacific coast to Baja California, it now spans only a fraction of the distance. And even after hunting ended, otters have remained threatened by other human activities like oil drilling and commercial fishing. Clearly, this was a species that needed protection from humans. The question was how.

Back in the 1980s, oil spills were considered the greatest threat to sea otters on California’s central coast. The small marine mammals depend on their thick fur to keep them warm in cold ocean water, and contact with even a small amount of oil can cause death by hypothermia. In an attempt to guard against this threat to the southern sea otters, a plan was hatched to create a second colony of otters in a safer location offshore, on California’s Channel Islands. The plan involved a couple of elements. First, move a number of otters out to San Nicolas Island to try to start a population that policymakers believed could help guard against a mass die-off in the event of a catastrophic oil spill. Second, because otters were being moved closer to the lucrative fishing grounds of Southern California, the plan also created a “no otter zone” from which the otters would be removed if they were discovered there. Quite simply, the decision was made to encourage otters to inhabit some places, but keep them out of others.

Sea otter and pup, © Joel Sartore/National Geographic Stock

A sea otter cradling her pup in a kelp bed off of Adak Island.

Between 1987 and 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) moved 140 sea otters from the coast of California out to San Nicolas Island. Unfortunately, many of the otters did not survive the initial move, and many others left San Nicolas to return to the mainland. Not only did the otters not take well to being moved to the island in the first place, but they fared similarly badly when moved out of the “no otter zone.”

Because of the harm to otters caused by a program that was supposed to help them, FWS stopped moving otters in the early 1990s to reevaluate the program. For several years, only a few otters were reported in the “no otter zone.” However, by 1998 the numbers began to increase — the otters had found their way back. In 2000, FWS determined that continuing to remove otters from the “no otter zone” was not only causing harm to individual otters that didn’t survive the move, but also likely to put the entire species at risk. These scientists determined — a decade after the translocation program was initiated — that the most important thing to sea otter recovery was range expansion, and that the “no otter zone” originally included in the translocation program was fundamentally inconsistent with the needs of the species. The otter moving stopped, but the regulations making most of Southern California technically “off limits” to sea otters stayed on the books, continuing to threaten otters with the specter of forced relocation.

For years, FWS has consistently found that otters need to move and expand their range if the species is to recover from its threatened status and find its way off the endangered species list. Despite this scientific knowledge, however, the policy response has been excruciatingly slow. But yesterday, FWS finally took action, signing a final rule that formally puts an end to the “no otter zone,” ending the experiment in active management of otters on California’s coast, and truly allowing natural range expansion to occur. And you deserve some of the credit too: during the public comment period for the policy change, Defenders’ supporters sent more than 11,600 comments to FWS to show their support for the repeal of the “no otter zone.” This is a fantastic, if long- awaited outcome from FWS, and one that we hope will allow southern sea otters to inch closer to recovery.

8 Responses to “Room To Move”

  1. Bette M.

    Wherever you are there once were trees, otters & streams.
    Plant & protect Danny’s streams, trees and otters for life.
    Remember, trees are the life line of the earth as the streams
    are too.

  2. Lori Paul

    I was peripherally involved in preliminary studies for the translocation of S. sea otters to San Nicholas Island. This article is accurate, to a point, but sugar-coats the story. Biologists like myself were well aware that the “No Otter Zone” was a bad idea, but politics at the time trumped common sense and good science. Why? To throw a bone to fishermen and abalone hunters. Their rabid opposition to the natural expansion of sea otters was one reason San Nicholas Island was selected as a “compromise” for establishing a “back up” population of otters in the event of a catastrophic oil spill in the limited natural range of N. CA. Biologists and otter supporters did all we could to educate fishermen that it was human consumption of abalone that had decimated the S. CA abalone populations, not otters.

    Otters area a “keystone” predator that feed on sea urchins as well as other shellfish, including abalone. Sea urchins eat the holdfasts (non-nutrient absorbing “roots”) of giant kelp. Where there are no otters preying on urchins, the urchins will overpopulate and entire offshore forests of giant kelp vanish. Giant kelp forests are protective nurseries for commercial fish fry, crustaceans, and shellfish larvae. As a result of the decline in sea otters, Southern California coastal waters lost much of their biodiverse, valuable kelp forests.

    Unfortunately, the powerful fishing and shellfish industry hamstrung efforts to allow otters to expand S. of Pt. Conception. Hence, the translocation project was an unsuccessful alternative. Please be accurate for the sake of historical record. It was fishing and abalone hunter special interests that attempted to blame the mass decline of abalone species on the sea otter and who had undue influence on the USFWS, CA Dept. of Fish & Game, and other authorities. The same fishermen and abalone hunters who had decimated red, green and black abalone by “over harvest.”

    Removal of the “No Otter Zone” is long, long overdue. This is good news, but comes far too late for the many otters that died being transported or hazed out when they showed up in southern waters S. of Pt. Consception… or who struck off across open ocean desperately trying to get home after being captured and taken to San Nicholas Island. Better late than never!

  3. Myrella Ribas

    Glad to learn a final rule puts an end to the “no otter zone” and they can move and expand their range. They are one of my favorite animals. We have to do whatever it takes to avoid their extinction.

  4. Gertie

    Fishing and abalone hunter special interests attempted to blame mass decline of abalone species on the sea otter?….That figures!!!!! Reminds me of ranchers blaming the deaths of their livestock on wolves, when in fact, wolves only account for about 2% of livestock deaths!!!

  5. Matt R

    Hi Sierra, Thank you for the article and update on the final decision. I had not heard whether it was ‘official.’

    good news for the otters. good news for California.

    Thank you.

  6. Crystal E

    Great News. I love otters and so glad to see the moving stopped. Loved the additional feedback from Lori on the topic.

  7. Inguna Galvina

    Thanks for Great News and the additional information! I love otters!

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