Sea Otters Ignore Government’s “No-Otter” Zone

Published September 26, 2011

The federal government has a longstanding “no-otter” zone off the coast of Southern California, but the feds apparently forgot to tell the sea otters. Despite their best efforts to keep sea otters away from coastal waters between the U.S.-Mexico border and a line approximately 40 miles south of Santa Barbara, the sea otters continue to return. In August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally surrendered, announcing they intend to lift the no-otter mandate.

Hunted to Near Extinction

Long valued for their thick, luxurious fur, sea otters were hunted to near-extinction during the 1800s. The otters were, in fact, believed to be extinct during the early 1900s, until a colony of approximately 50 was discovered in the 1930s in central California near Monterey Bay. 

The sea otter population gradually expanded during the twentieth century, but the otters remain a threatened species on the Endangered Species List. Fish and Wildlife officials feared a single large oil spill could wipe out the sea otters. Accordingly, the agency removed all sea otters from the “no-otter” zone and relocated them to a remote section of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, where the animals would presumably be safe.

New Home Not So Welcoming

San Nicholas Island was chosen as the site to relocate the otters because it was the most remote of the Channel Islands and sea otters had been seen there before. Because the otters eat shellfish—sea urchins, abalone, and clams—some commercial shell fishermen objected to the relocating of the otters to San Nicholas, according to Tim Tinker, a research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided no otters should be allowed south of Point Conception, to keep them away from the commercial shellfish areas.

Fish and Wildlife reasoned if the sea otter colony got large enough and ranged south of Point Conception, it was probably growing faster and was large enough to take off the endangered list. Any otters that strayed past the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s imaginary line would be captured and brought back. 

However, most of the sea otters that were relocated to San Nicolas Island either died or swam back to their former homes. Although 140 sea otters were relocated to San Nicolas Island between 1987 and 1991, less than 40 currently remain.

Remnant a Success?

David Jessup, senior wildlife veterinarian and director of the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center at the California Department of Fish and Game, in Santa Cruz, California, says about 90 percent of the transplanted otters left San Nicholas Island waters within a few months of being placed there, with a small remnant remaining behind. 

“Although the results meet one definition of ‘failure’ developed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for legal definitional purposes, there is a viable and growing sea otter population there of around 30, a result that could be considered a success,” Jessup said.

Recent Expansion

Ken Peterson, communications director at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, says the colony at San Nicholas has already begun expanding south, with some sea otters seen in Los Angeles Harbor and the Santa Barbara Channel. 

“Presumably the sea otters will continue expanding at the rate the food supply expands. Besides being sentient beings, sea otters are the aquatic equivalent of the canary in a coal mine. If something besides sharks is killing them off, we need to know so that we can correct it because we swim and take food from the same ocean,” said Peterson.

Numbers Slow to Rise

“Basically, the sea otters continue to recover very slowly, but their numbers are static and they face many threats to their recovery,” Tinker explained.

Mike Harris, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, warned sea otters still face many obstacles and the overall population has been very slow to grow. 

“We’ve determined that the problem is not reproduction. In fact, we’ve narrowed it down to two factors: infectious skin diseases and white shark-related mortality,” Harris explained.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Texas.