The feds last month decided to put an end to a 24-year-old “no-otter zone” in Southern California as well as an experimental program to establish a southern sea otter colony on a remote island off Santa Barbara.
Long thought of as a “big mistake” by environmentalists, the translocation program failed to entice otters to put down roots on San Nicolas Island, a far-flung Channel Island. Instead, most otters that were brought to the location vanished; most likely they were pining for their original homelands. Of the 140 that were trapped and moved, only 40 remain today.
“We’ve learned a lot during the course of the translocation program, and as a result have fundamentally changed our recovery strategy,” said Ren Lohoefener, the regional director of the wildlife service’s Pacific Southwest Region. “Our experience strongly suggests that the best course of action is to allow sea otters to expand naturally into Southern California waters.”
The announcement was met with the online equivalent of whoops and fist pumps by conservation groups.
“Today is a good day for California sea otters,” Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Sea Otter, the Humane Society of the United States and the Monterey Bay Aquarium wrote in a joint statement. “We support an end to the ineffective and harmful translocation program and ‘no-otter’ management zone.”
The “no-otter” zone was created as a way to keep otters out of harm’s way, lest a large oil spill or other catastrophe would wipe out the population. Officials thought that by creating an otter sanctuary far away from ships and oil rigs would protect them. (Sea urchin harvesters also lobbied to keep sea otters in a secluded location – sea urchins being the preferred food for the acrobatic critters.)
The “no-otter “zone stretched from Point Conception, 40 miles north of Santa Barbara to the Mexican border, including all the Channel Islands – with the exception of San Nicolas. Officials now realize that wildlife, for all their street smarts, still cannot read maps.
Hunted to near extinction in the 1700s, a small population of sea otters was discovered near Big Sur in the 1930s. Since 1977, sea otters have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1977.
— B.R., sea otter photo by Mike Baird