The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to allow sea otters to roam freely down the Southern California coastline, abandoning its program to relocate the voracious shellfish eaters from waters reserved for fishermen.
Federal officials determined that their sea otter trans-location program had failed after 25 years and thus they were terminating it, according to a decision published in the Federal Register on Wednesday.
“As a result, it allows sea otters to expand their range naturally into Southern California,” the notice said.
Federal officials turned Southern California into an “otter-free zone” in the late 1980s after moving 140 otters from Monterey Bay to San Nicolas Island, about 60 miles off the coast of Ventura County. The idea was to establish a reserve colony of otters in case a disaster, such as a catastrophic oil spill, wiped out the otters along the coast.
In a deal with fishermen, the government declared waters south of Point Conception to be off limits to otters. It promised to round up any that strayed into forbidden territory. Initially, officials attempted to capture and relocate those wandering otters to Central California, but some swam right back to Southern California. Others were found dead shortly after the move.
Scientists estimate that about 16,000 Southern sea otters once lived along the California coast before they were hunted nearly to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries for their luxurious pelts. The federal government declared them threatened with extinction in 1977 and protected them under the Endangered Species Act. Their numbers have not increased much in recent years, as they suffer from disease, parasites, inadequate food supplies, shark bites and the occasional bullet wound. An estimated 2,792 now exist in the wild.
The abandoned promise of otter-free waters disappointed longtime urchin divers like Bruce Steele, of Buellton, Calif., who believes otters can devastate shellfish stocks and put fishermen out of business.
“It’s just sad,” said Steele, who helped broker the original agreement. “There are shellfish resources worthy of protection. We don’t need sea otters from the Canadian to the Mexican border. There should be room for these invertebrates [shellfish] and people who make their living harvesting them.”
The federal decision came out of a settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center and the Otter Project. It was welcomed by all the conservation groups dedicated to saving the furry, button-nosed marine mammals.
“It’s long overdue,” said Jim Curland, advocacy program director for Friends of the Sea Otter. But it’s great, he said, that the otters can now expand throughout their natural range.