High Hopes for Sea Otters

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California’s “no-otter zone” is on the way out

Floating effortlessly on their backs just off the Monterey Bay coast, dozens of dozing sea otters are soaking up the warm southern California sun. They’re taking a fiver from frolicking in the nearshore waters and scavenging undersea kelp forests for the food—up to 16 pounds per day of abalone, clams, mussels, urchins and other shellfish–that fuels their high-octane lives.

From dry ground, it’s easy to think that these furry marine mammals have it made. But these otters, along with the greater population of threatened southern sea otters are struggling just to keep their heads above water.

As few as 2,800 sea otters call California’s waters home. Still recovering from a fur trade that nearly wiped them out by the early 1900s, otters are now at risk from disease and shark attacks, which are on the rise.

In two of the past three years, the southern sea otter’s population three-year average declined, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. But scientists say that giving otters more room to roam may help their numbers grow. “For sea otters to have a real shot at recovery, they must be allowed to return to their historic habitats off the coast of southern California and those waters need to be cleaner and disease-free,” says Kim Delfino, Defenders’ California program director. “Sea otters keep shellfish populations in check, keeping kelp forests healthy and full of life. If they’re allowed to thrive and reclaim their former range, their entire habitat will reap the benefits.”

Fortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the federal agency responsible for managing and recovering southern sea otters, is poised to give otters the room they need. In August, wildlife officials announced their intention to end the “no-otter zone,” a stretch of ocean from Point Conception, Calif., to the Mexican border where officials remove and relocate sea otters caught “trespassing.”

The “no-otter zone” was put in place in 1987 to address concerns from fishing interests over a plan to protect sea otters against extinction by establishing a new colony of 400 to 500 otters on San Nicolas Island. Fishing interests balked at the idea of having so many sea otters close by important fisheries off Santa Barbara, Calif., even though sea otters historically occupied the area. But the San Nicolas Island population never thrived. Some 20 years after they were released in the area, the population has struggled to reach just 46 animals.

After nearly two decades of studying the problem, FWS has determined that ending the “no-otter zone” and allowing sea otters to naturally expand into their historic range offer the species its best shot at recovery. Defenders is backing this effort.

Meanwhile, Defenders scored another important win for sea otters in 2011 by saving the California Sea Otter Fund, which collects donations from state taxpayers who support sea otter conservation. Over the past five years, the fund has raised more than $1.5 million in contributions. And it’s one of the few lifelines supporting scientific research to better understand how toxic chemicals and pollution are harming sea otters. Marine biologists don’t know what is dragging otter numbers down, but they remain hopeful that the clues revealed by the study will help buoy sea otters back to safety.

Working alongside California Assemblyman Bill Monning and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Defenders co-sponsored legislation to renew the fund. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law in September, reauthorizing the fund for up to another five years.

“Californians are committed to these coastal icons and have generously donated more than $1.5 million to help save sea otters from extinction,” Delfino says. “Although we’ve made some progress, it is not smooth sailing for sea otter recovery. That’s why it’s also important for the ‘no-otter zone’ to be no more.”

[SIDEBAR]

YOU DID IT!

Thanks to the thousands of Defenders members who helped put sea otters on the path to recovery by sending a message to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, urging the agency to eliminate the “no-otter zone” and the sea otter translocation program. You made a difference!

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