Photos by Jeff Foott

The smallest marine mammal in North America, the southern sea otter once ranged all along the California coastline southward into Baja California, Mexico. Intelligent and charismatic, sea otters are a joy to watch: using tools, floating on their backs and playing together as families. They also play a critical role in protecting kelp beds and creating habitat for fish and other important marine life. Unfortunately, southern sea otters are still listed as threatened since trappers in the early 20th century brought them to the brink of extinction.

Despite their perilous status, in 1987 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a rule designating nearly all southern California waters from Point Conception to the U.S.-Mexico border as a “no-otter zone.” The 1987 rule grew out of a proposal to establish a second sea otter population, through reintroduction, at San Nicolas Island, located 60 miles off of southern California’s coastline. The proposal generated intense opposition from fisheries interests, however, and as a result the Service crafted a “compromise” regulation allowing the reintroduction but barring otters from all other areas in southern California.

The reintroduction effort, however, was plagued with difficulties from the beginning, and resulted in much higher levels of otter deaths and disappearances than predicted. Less than four years after its initiation, only 14 otters out of 140 brought to San Nicolas Island were known to have survived. The remaining 126 otters had died or disappeared. As early as 1990, FWS recognized that the effort has failed. For many years, however, the agency failed to finish a required review to formally recognize the failure and terminate the no-otter zone.

Finally, after more than two decades of delay, in 2009 the EDC brought a federal lawsuit on behalf of itself and The Otter Project ( to force FWS to make a final decision on the fate of the no-otter zone. The lawsuit resulted in a successful settlement, and in December 2012 FWS finally made the landmark decision formally recognizing the translocation program as a failure and formally terminating the no-otter zone.

While southern sea otters are at long last free to reclaim the historic southern California habitat so important to their ultimate recovery, the battle is unfortunately not yet over. In March 2013, a fishing organization known as the California Sea Urchin Commission notified FWS of its intent to sue over the decision. The essence of the threatened lawsuit is that the southern sea otter must be prevented from reinhabiting southern California waters because its prey includes endangered black and white abalone. In fact both of these species were listed because of overfishing, not natural predation by the southern sea otter.

We have come so far since we filed our lawsuit in September 2009 to force the federal government to get the no-otter zone off the books. In order to safeguard that victory, we are prepared to intervene in the fishing industry’s lawsuit and defend our hard-fought victory. To help us continue to win for the otters whose presence in our waters gives us all so much, please donate.

Links & Resources EDC PRESS RELEASES
Sea Otters: Learn the Facts 11-22-10 'No Otter Zone' Could Be No More

Southern Sea Otter Population Declines for First Time Since Mid-1990s

5-6-10 Federal Judge Rules in Favor of Sea Otter Protection

Otter Project 10-30-09 Conservation Groups Bring Lawsuit Challenging Government's Failure to Protect Southern Sea Otter
Press on Court Ruling, Ventura County Star 10-30-09 Complete Media Packet

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