Sea Otters Are Coming Home

Photo by Jeff Foot, The Otter Project

Photo by Jeff Foot, The Otter Project

Last week was Sea Otter Awareness Week and what better way to celebrate our furry friends than U.S District Court Judge John F. Walter upholding the Fish & Wildlife Services’ (FWS) 2012 decision to terminate the “no-otter zone” against a legal challenge from the Pacific Legal Foundation? EDC had intervened in support of the FWS decision on behalf of The Otter Project, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, and itself.

The zone, which encompassed the coastal waters of California south of Point Conception all the way to the Mexican border, was established in 1987 in an ill-fated compromise with the fishing and offshore oil industries. The FWS aimed to establish a thriving sea otter population on San Nicolas Island by relocating 140 of these marine mammals, in an attempt to protect the mainland population from a catastrophic event, such as an oil spill. However the translocation effort proved deadly, as only 10 percent remained on the island after four years, while the other 90 percent tried to swim back, or perished. Despite the failed relocation plan, the no-otter zone stayed in effect for over two decades.

The Beginning of the End of the No-Otter Zone

In 2009 EDC brought a lawsuit, on behalf of The Otter Project and itself, challenging the FWS’s failure to act on making a required decision: whether or not to terminate the no-otter zone. Not only had the FWS stated that the no-otter zone puts sea otters in jeopardy, they had also begun the process of ending the zone several times. Despite the Service’s promise to make a decision regarding the zone by 2006, a rule was never finalized and no further action had been taken since then. The two groups reached a legal settlement with the FWS in 2010 which required an assessment on the otter translocation program and that a final decision be made on the fate of the program by December 2012.

Photo by Jeff Foott, The Otter Project.

Photo by Jeff Foott, The Otter Project.

To the Brink of Extinction and Back:
The Power of the Endangered Species Act

Sea otters have faced survival challenges for the better part of the last 300 years, beginning with the Pacific Fur Trade in the 1700 and 1800’s. Driven to the brink of extinction, the struggling population continues to face threats from increasingly developed coastlines, decreased water quality from storm water and agricultural runoff, and increasing shark predation. What some may not know is that sea otters are a keystone species, and are vital to the existence of their habitat. As the only marine mammal without blubber to keep them warm, they have to eat up to 25% of their body weight each day, feeding on herbivorous creatures such as sea urchin. This is where the problem comes in for commercial fishing groups and urchin divers. However, without sea otters keeping urchin in-check, urchin will continue to deplete kelp forests, resulting in an ecosystem low in productivity and biodiversity.

Sea otters were first given protection under the North Pacific Fur Seal Treaty in 1911, and were subsequently protected as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act upon its enactment in 1973. Where their numbers were once in the 10s of thousands, the most recent estimate of the southern sea otter population is approximately 3,000 individuals.

Looking to the Future

Thanks to the 2012 ruling compelled by EDC’s 2009 lawsuit and upheld by this month’s ruling, sea otters are able to return to their historic habitat and have a fighting chance of repopulating Southern California’s coastal waters. Not only is this good news for the smallest marine mammals out there, but having these once absent creatures back in our waters will restore our depleted kelp beds and greatly improve the health of our marine ecosystems.

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Chloe McConnell

Chloe McConnell is the Environmental Defense Center’s Development Coordinator.

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