Welcome Back, Otter

Last week, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to put an end to a 24-year-old “no-otter zone” in Southern California – which also put an end to 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 13 remain today.

Biologists are today monitoring the critters to see if any of the slippery mammals will put up stakes in Southern California – maybe as far south as San Diego County.

The Santa Cruz Patch recently talked with Jim Curland from the Friends of the Sea Otter about the elimination of the “no-otter zone” that stretches 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.

When asked about the current threats to the sea otters in California, Curland responded:

Curland: Disease, most of which are associated with land based origins; food limitations; shark attacks are some of the key ones. Historically in California, sea otters were caught in gill nets. Currently, there is some uncertainty as to if negative interactions with fishing gear are an impact. These are just some of the threats, but we are still somewhat puzzled with what all contributes to the stagnant growth patterns of sea otters in California and the increased mortality. The current population survey from spring 2012 showed a very slight uptick in the three-year average, but what continues to concern scientists and conservationists is that we don’t see sustained growth over years.

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.)

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.