Friends of the Sea Otter (FSO), a California-based organization dedicated to sea otter conservation, announced today that it has made the strategic decision to close its operations and transfer its agenda, services, and assets to Defenders of Wildlife, a national organization focused on wildlife and habitat conservation and the safeguarding of biodiversity. Defenders will continue the work to protect and restore the sea otter populations along the Pacific coast.

Founded in 1968 by pioneering environmentalist Margaret Owings of Big Sur, FSO has played a lead role in bringing the southern sea otter back from the brink of extinction. Going forward, sea otters throughout their range and the marine ecosystem of which they are a part will benefit from Defenders’ national profile and extensive advocacy skills and network.

As part of this transaction, Defenders will expand its federal advocacy for otters under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act and statewide through California’s environmental laws such as the California Endangered Species Act. Defenders will also continue FSO’s state and local education, outreach and sea otter awareness efforts.

For three consecutive years (2016 to 2018), the average southern sea otter population count narrowly surpassed the recovery threshold of 3,090 – opening the door to consider delisting the population from the Endangered Species Act. The sea otter continues to face significant threats, however, and the average population count dipped below the delisting threshold in 2019. FSO and Defenders believe that the southern sea otter population has not recovered and is unlikely to meet the full criteria for delisting. 

Both groups spearheaded coalition letters to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in September 2019 and April 2020, asking for revisions to the 17-year-old Recovery Plan to account for current threats and establish a more realistic recovery threshold.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, issued this statement:

“For more than 50 years, Friends of the Sea Otter has worked tirelessly to ensure that sea otters are properly protected under federal and state law. Their conservation legacy is truly remarkable. Defenders of Wildlife has worked alongside Friends of the Sea Otter for many years and is proud to now carry their work forward.

Thanks to concerted conservation efforts, sea otters are back from the brink of extinction, but they remain at risk. We will redouble our efforts to ensure that sea otters and their coastal environment are protected and restored.”

Jennifer Covert, Chair of the Board of Directors of Friends of the Sea Otter, issued this statement:  

“Between threats to critical protections of keystone species and endangered wildlife at the federal and state level, the reality of climate change and the challenge of promoting sustainable coexistence between humans and wildlife, our work is more challenging than ever. The marriage of our two organizations will ensure that our dedicated resources are most efficiently and effectively utilized to advance our shared goal of full recovery of the sea otter and its habitat and to fulfill the goals set by Margaret Owings over 50 years ago.

We are proud of the progress we’ve made and hopeful this decision will further protect the nearshore ecosystem and promote the biological diversity essential to a healthy ocean and the economies that depend on the marine environment.

In carrying out its transition plan, FSO has made donations of funds to other organizations that are involved in sea otter conservation. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a leader in such efforts and was a recipient of an FSO grant.”  

Julie Packard, Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, issued this statement:

“Margaret Owings was a fierce champion for sea otters, mountain lions and the wildlife and wild places that make California so special. The Aquarium was proud to publish Margaret’s memoirs, which told the story of her founding of Friends of the Sea Otter in 1968. Like Margaret, the Aquarium has been dedicated to the recovery of our state’s most iconic marine species. We’re proud to continue her legacy, by winning vital protections for southern sea otters, supporting sea otter research, and inspiring tens of millions of visitors to care more – and do more – to protect these iconic animals.”

Throughout its history, FSO has had the assistance and advice of renowned conservationists and wildlife experts and advocates. Two distinguished members of FSO’s Honorary Committee, Dr. Jane Goodall and Mr. Robert Redford, provided their comments on Margaret Owings and the FSO/Defenders of Wildlife collaboration.

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute & UN Messenger of Peace, issued this statement:

"I knew Margaret Owings in 1968 when she was founding the Friends of the Sea Otter. In fact, I was with her the very first time she saw them from a boat. I know she would be delighted to see how, thanks to her foresight and determination, these truly delightful mammals have rebounded from the brink of extinction. This partnership with the Defenders of Wildlife is a big step to ensuring their conservation into the future."

Robert Redford, Actor, Director, Producer and Environmental Activist, issued this statement:

"As someone who witnessed firsthand Margaret’s passion and vision to protect the sea otter, mountain lions and California’s wild places, I am encouraged that her legacy will live on through this new partnership with Defenders of Wildlife."


After more than 50 years of advocacy for sea otters, Friends of the Sea Otter believes that the best opportunity for saving this iconic species is to partner with Defenders of Wildlife not only to save sea otters but also to protect the laws and regulations intended to achieve this important goal.

Friends of the Sea Otter

  • Friends of the Sea Otter was founded in 1968 by Margaret Owings and Dr. James Mattison as an advocacy group dedicated to actively working with state and federal agencies, scientists, educators and the public to maintain, increase and broaden protections for the sea otter.
  • FSO worked successfully for the listing of the southern sea otter as threatened in 1977 and the southwest Alaska stock of the northern sea otter as threatened in 2005, entitling both to strong federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.
  • FSO played a leading role in establishing a second population of southern sea otters off San Nicolas Island.
  • FSO successfully prevented a general exemption established in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that would have allowed incidental take in commercial fisheries from being extended to the southern sea otter.
  • FSO has helped facilitate and organize the annual Sea Otter Awareness Week in September, during which sea otter research, conservation, population status and recovery needs are highlighted by researchers, marine institutions, zoos, aquariums, educators and many others.
  • FSO, together with Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Center for Biological Diversity, represented by Earthjustice, combined forces in the successful defense of the FWS’s decision to end the so-called “no-otter zone” against a lawsuit filed by the shellfish industry. (On October 29, 2018, U.S. Supreme Court rejected the fishing industry’s effort to overturn lower court decisions upholding the end of the no-otter zone.) 
  • FSO commissioned a report with independent experts submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service in July 2020, to call for an amended sea otter recovery plan and a higher delisting threshold.

Defenders of Wildlife

  • Founded in 1947, Defenders of Wildlife is a major national conservation organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.
  • Defenders works in key regions across the country, in the courts and with state, national and international policymakers to protect and restore North American imperiled species.
  • Defenders has a long history of promoting the conservation of sea otters. Defenders worked in collaboration with FSO and other conservation partners to end the “no-otter zone.”  
  • Defenders worked to enact regulations to end the use of set gill nets from waters less than 60 fathoms (360 feet) in depth from Marin County southward to Point Arguello in northern Santa Barbara County. 
  • In 2006, together with FSO, Defenders successfully sponsored legislation directed at increasing protections for sea otters from diseases transmitted through poor water quality by enacting a requirement that cat litter sold in California must include a statement discouraging the flushing of cat litter in toilets or disposing of it outdoors. The legislation also created a voluntary contribution opportunity on California state tax forms to provide funds for sea otter research and law enforcement efforts. The California Sea Otter Fund has raised nearly $4 million to date. 
  • Defenders continues to promote the annual Sea Otter Awareness Week, which is held during the last week in September. 
  • Finally, Defenders continues to work with the State of California and local communities to protect the California coastline from the threat of expanded oil production off its shore.

Media Contact: Rebecca Bullis, Communications Associate for Defenders of Wildlife, 202-772-0295, rbullis@defenders.org  

Michelle Bender, Conservation Director for Friends of the Sea Otter, 509-218-9338, mbender@earthlaw.org 

Defenders of Wildlife is celebrating 75 years of protecting all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With a nationwide network of nearly 2.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.


Sea otter
Ocean Wave


Shortfin mako shark
Washington, DC

Lawsuit Launched Over Federal Failure to Protect Shortfin Mako Shark as Endangered or Threatened Species

Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity sent a notice today of their intent to sue NOAA Fisheries for its failure to protect the shortfin mako shark under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
North atlantic right whale and calf
New York, NY

Recertification of Lobster Fishery Would Harm Right Whales, Mislead Consumers 

Conservation groups acted today to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale by formally objecting to a determination that the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery should be recertified to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainability standard.