A sea otter no-go zone and a colony established decades ago have failed to… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
After 24 years of barring sea otters from most Southern California waters and trying to establish a colony for the animals on San Nicolas Island, federal wildlife officials say the effort should be abandoned because it failed to help the threatened species recover.
A plan released Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would allow southern sea otters to expand into their historic range off Southern California and officially end a relocation program long criticized as ineffective and harmful to the furry marine mammals.
Starting in 1987, federal scientists moved 140 sea otters from Monterey Bay to San Nicolas Island, 60 miles off the coast, to try to establish a new population there in case a disaster, such as an oil spill, threatened them with extinction. As part of a compromise with fishing groups, the government declared waters south of Point Conception a "no-otter zone" and promised to round up any otters that strayed close to the Southern California mainland, where they dine on the same shellfish fishermen seek.
But the new colony failed to take hold. Many of the otters that had been relocated to the island disappeared, died or returned to their parent population along the Central Coast.
"About half of the otters we brought out there, we don't really know what happened to them," said Lilian Carswell, southern sea otter recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We learned that the basic, underlying concept was flawed: that you can move sea otters in this mechanistic way and expect them to do what you want them to do."
Under the new plan, the nearly 50 otters currently at San Nicolas Island would be allowed to remain. Sea otters throughout Southern California would be given the same protections as those along the Central Coast.
The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to release a draft of the decision under a settlement agreement last year with the Otter Project and Environmental Defense Center, which sued the agency in 2009 to force it to end the program.
Conservation groups applauded the move, saying it could give a boost to the beloved critters, who in recent years have struggled against an onslaught of deadly threats, including overfishing, polluted runoff, poisonous microbes and shark attacks.
"For sea otters to have a real shot at recovery, they must be allowed to return to their historic range off the coast of Southern California," said Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Sea Otter, the Humane Society of the United States and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in a statement. "If sea otters thrive again throughout their historic range, the entire marine ecosystem will benefit."
In the early 1990s, it became clear that otters were dying after being relocated from Southern California to the Central Coast and that enforcing an artificial boundary was not helping restore the population. The last time the Fish and Wildlife Service moved otters out of Southern California waters was in 1993.
"Nobody really thought that you could take an ocean-going animal and draw an imaginary line and tell it not to go there," said Jim Curland, marine program associate with Defenders of Wildlife. "People were very skeptical that you could take an animal, physically move it to an island and expect it to stay."
In 1999 large numbers of male and juvenile sea otters started moving seasonally into Southern California in search of food. Fishermen sued the Fish and Wildlife Service for not moving them north. The government responded with a biological opinion that said doing so would jeopardize the population.
Years ago, southern sea otters inhabited waters from Oregon to Baja California, numbering 16,000 in the 19th century. They were nearly wiped out by fur traders who hunted them for their pelts, and by the early 1900s, a small colony of just 50 survived along the coast of Big Sur. In 1977 they were protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Sea otters have made a slow recovery and today number about 2,800 in California. But as they have exhausted food sources along the Central Coast, wildlife officials now believe the only way for their numbers to continue to grow is to allow them to venture south.
The new plan is open for comment over a 60-day period. The decision could be made final by 2012.