After 24 years of barring sea otters from most Southern California waters and trying to establish a colony for the threatened animals on San Nicolas Island, federal wildlife officials on Wednesday announced a proposal to abandon the program, saying it failed to help the threatened species recover.
The proposal announced Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would allow sea otters to expand naturally into their historic range off Southern California and officially put an end to a relocation program long criticized as ineffective and harmful to the marine mammals.
Starting in 1987, federal officials relocated 140 sea otters from Monterey Bay to San Nicolas Island, 60 miles off the coast, to try to establish a new population of southern sea otters there in case a disaster, such as an oil spill, threatened them with extinction.
As part of a compromise with fishing groups, the government declared waters from Point Conception to the Mexican border a “no-otter zone” and promised to round up any otters that strayed into waters along the Southern California mainland, where they dine on the same shellfish fishermen seek.
But the new colony failed to take hold as many of the otters relocated to the island swam away to return to their parent population along the Central Coast, disappeared or died.
“About half of the otters we brought out there, we don’t really know what happened to them,” said Lilian Carswell, southern sea otter recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We learned that the basic, underlying concept was flawed: that you can move sea otters in this mechanistic way and expect them to do what you want them to do instead of what they want to do.”
Under the plan, the 46 otters that remain at San Nicolas Island would be allowed to stay there and would no longer be considered an experimental population as they have for more than two decades. Sea otters in Southern California would be given the same protections as those along the Central Coast.
The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to release a draft of the decision by next month under a settlement agreement last year with the Otter Project and Environmental Defense Center, conservation groups that sued the agency in 2009 to force them to end the program.
In a joint statement, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Sea Otter, the Humane Society of the United States and the Monterey Bay Aquarium applauded the decision, calling the no-otter zone “ineffective and harmful."
“For sea otters to have a real shot at recovery, they must be allowed to return to their historic range off the coast of Southern California,” they said. “If sea otters thrive again throughout their historic range, the entire marine ecosystem will benefit.”
By the early 1990s it became clear to federal wildlife officials that otters being relocated from Southern California to the Central Coast were dying after being released and that enforcing an artificial boundary was not helping restore the population. The last time the Fish and Wildlife Service moved otters out of Southern California waters was in 1993.
“Nobody really thought that you could take an ocean-going animal and draw an imaginary line and tell it not to go there,” said Jim Curland, marine program associate with Defenders of Wildlife. “People were very skeptical that you could take an animal, physically move it to an island and expect it to stay.”
In 1999 large numbers of male and juvenile sea otters started moving seasonally into Southern California as they searched for shellfish and other food. Fishermen filed suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service for not moving them north, and the government responded with a biological opinion that said it would jeopardize the population to continually move them out of Southern California and limit the expansion of their range.
Historically, southern sea otters inhabited waters from Oregon to Baja California, numbering 16,000 in the 19th century. They were nearly wiped out by fur traders who hunted them for their pelts, and by the early 1900s just a small remnant colony of 50 survived along the coast of Big Sur. In 1977 they were protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Since then, sea otters have made a slow recovery and today number about 2,800 in California. But as they have exhausted food sources along the Central Coast, wildlife officials now believe the only way for their population to continue its recovery is to allow them to venture wherever they want.
“The goal is to have sea otters really functioning as part of the near-shore marine ecosystem,” Carswell said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is asking for public comments on the plan in the next 60 days. The decision could be made final by 2012.
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Photo: A sea otter dines on shellfish in Monterey Bay. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.