Sea Otters Free to Roam Southern California

Feds scrap 25-year-old ruling restricting otters' movement.

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.

robin December 19, 2012 at 02:45 AM
It's about damn time some one around here did something right!!! I remember sea otters in ports o' call... then I remember seeing none. Yes, tryng to relocate and make them stay was a very stupid idea... Bring on the otters!!!!!
mimi December 19, 2012 at 04:36 PM
La Jolla keeps trying to keep the sea lions away from the area referred to as "the childrens pool". It has been a dismal failure for many years. But the idiots keep trying. It's not as if humans cannot swim in an adjacent area. Oh no, they prefer to fight with sea lions....who don't give a damn, nor should they. Cheers for the sea lions who have squatters rights and use the area as a nursery and to birth pups Jeers to the voters of La Jolla who have a permanent stick up their ass.
Ed Costello December 19, 2012 at 08:24 PM
"Free, at last" O. T. Ter
Douglas Fay December 20, 2012 at 06:10 AM
“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. This is a false and misleading statement by Liz Crosson. No one is forcing L.A. Waterkeeper to destroy sea urchins. They do it for money. They have paid staff and occasional volunteers. The majority of the money comes out of our pockets through government grants. Letting the Sea Otters return to their historical areas is overdue, but not the only solution. I suggested this to the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, which L.A. Waterkeeper is a member of, years ago and was humiliated. Liz Crosson didn't do a damn thing. She's part of the problems, not solutions to restoring and enhancing the Santa Monica Bay. Very disappointing indeed.
Hans Laetz December 23, 2012 at 05:41 PM
Mr. Fey, your constant smearing of environmental groups is getting very old. Santa Monica Bay is magnitudes of order in better shape because of the work they have done. And of course, doing such work takes money, and some of that comes from grants. Perhaps your acid whining is because you didn't get any? We've seen before other "institutes" go in similar campaigns because their plan wasn't as good as a different group's, and they got shunned.
Brenda Barnes December 23, 2012 at 10:13 PM
At least you could spell his name right, Hans Laetz, when you are making unsubstantiated and speculative claims. I don't know which of you is right or wrong, but if the group sold sea urchins or got grants to remove them and then claimed it was a volunteer effort, that speaks to lack of honesty right there. If they did it through paid people to fulfill the terms of a grant, there is nothing wrong with that on its face, so why misrepresent the facts?
Hans Laetz December 24, 2012 at 02:32 AM
Autocorrect socks.
Jeem January 16, 2013 at 03:44 PM
Saw one this morning near the Topaz jetty!
Nicole Mooradian (Editor) January 16, 2013 at 05:41 PM
Oh, cool! Did you get a picture of it? :)
Sharon Paul February 15, 2013 at 05:09 PM
I saw a playful otter in Malibu on Valentine's day. What a joyful experience. I have lived in So CA all my life and have never seen one. I had seen several when I was in Alaska. Sea otters are active, playful creatures. So happy to see they are returning to our coastline in So. Ca.
Hans Laetz February 15, 2013 at 05:42 PM
How cool! Where in Malibu? The first period marine biologists at MHS and I were treated to three whale spy hops two weeks ago. Magic.
Sharon Paul February 16, 2013 at 04:17 AM
I was at the Moonshadows restaurant . Glad you got to see three whales too. I just love the wonderful marine mammals.


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