December 19, 2012

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.

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