The lone southern sea otter continually broke the surface of the water, several times hugging clams against the thick fur of its belly. Floating past a flotilla of kayaks, it continued diving down for more, the sleek-swimming marine mammal one of many otters that can’t seem to stay north of Point Conception.

Apparently, the 2,700 or so southern sea otters within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary never received the memo that they were forbidden to travel into Southern California between Point Conception and the Mexican border, known as the no-otter zone to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the commercial fishing industry.

The no–otter zone began in 1987, with the FWS wanting to establish a new population of otters at San Nicholas Island, 60 miles off the Southern California coast, in an effort to save the species in the event of a catastrophic oil spill. The project engendered the wrath of oil and shellfish industries. As a result, FWS issued a compromise that allowed the translocation of otters to San Nicholas, but prohibiting the marine mammals south of Point Conception to the Mexican border. About 140 otters from Half Moon Bay to Point Conception were transplanted to San Nicholas.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding the project’s success, a “failure criteria” was also created for evaluation and termination, if unsuccessful. Even though the FWS issued preliminary failure findings for nearly 20 years, the FWS never issued a final decision on the no–otter zone. Over the last 30 years, only about 35 have remained on San Nicholas. In the meantime, sea otters have migrated into former habitat without the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“We want sea otters to be considered when it comes to development,” said Steve Shimek of The Otter Project. “We need to get past the idea that otters are illegal.”

After a lengthy lawsuit to end the no-otter zone, The Otter Project and Environmental Defense Center (EDC) formally settled their lawsuit last month against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service, challenging FWS’ decades-long ban of southern sea otters from Southern California.

The settlement requires the FWS to prepare a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), assessing whether or not the translocation of otters has succeeded or failed, by Sept. 1, 2011. If the FWS determines the project failed, it must also publish a proposed rule by Sept. 1, 2011, to terminate the project.  Following public comment on the proposed rule, the FWS must complete a final EIS that includes final failure determination by Dec. 7, 2012.

“Southern sea otters have been absent from their historic Southern California habitat for far too long,” said Brian Segee, EDC staff attorney. “This settlement agreement represents a key boost for the otter’s recovery and will hopefully result in new policies allowing their natural return to waters south of Point Conception.”

During the 18th and 19th centuries, southern sea otters were hunted intensely for their pelts.  Once, there were a half-million to 1 million throughout the north Pacific basin. In California, there were between 16,000 and 18,000 otters, but by the early 19th century, they were believed to be extinct. In 1938, however, a small population of less than 50 otters was discovered along the Big Sur coastline. From that population, the California species has slowly expanded its range and numbers. In 1977, the species was listed as threatened under the ESA.

“Otters are coming down the coast independently,” said Greg Sanders, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement senior marine biologist. “You’ll see them in the next five years, and we need to create a healthy environment for otters.”

That will be easier said than done. Right now, otters are merely traveling into old territory, but if otters attempt to establish territories south of Point Conception, they’ll be more susceptible to boat traffic, netting, potential oil spills and certainly urban runoff.

Shimek said he’s seen otters as far south as northern Goleta, a female with pups. Sanders said that some otters have been seen just north of the Mexican border, but he believes those otters were transplants from San Nicholas. He said otters on the move today may return to portions of the Channel Islands National Park. Before sea otters were hunted for their fur, a third of the entire California population surrounded the archipelago.

“I think they will, but it will take time,” he said.  “Who knows? San Miguel Island is the closest and has good habitat.”
The one thing that may thwart otters ranging south of Point Conception is the females. Once they get comfortable and establish their own territories, the females like to stick around.

“Females like to stay put,” continued Sanders. “The males travel, but not too far. The females anchor the population.”