A 25-year federal campaign against sea otters in Southern California is finally ending, because it turns out sea otters will go down the coast if they want to, because declaring the whole of Southern California from Point Conception to the Mexican border an "otter-free zone" just wasn't a very good idea.
In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a program of forced otter relocation, capturing the endangered animals whenever they strayed into the Santa Barbara channel. Why? Because the U.S. Navy and the commercial fishing industry objected to an earlier plan to establish a backup population of the endangered sea mammals on San Nichols Island, the most remote of the Channel Islands. The Navy likes to kill marine mammals with weird sonar weapons, and the fishermen didn't want the otters getting all the shellfish—the otter's federally protected status angered the sea-war and sea-fishing industries, so somebody in Washington signed a piece of paper that said otters couldn't leave their Northern California sanctuary.
"Trying to tell a marine mammal to stay on one side of an imaginary line across the water was a dumb idea," said Steve Shimek, executive director of The Otter Project. The change in policy "will not only protect sea otters from harm, but because of the otters' critical role in the environment, it will also help restore our local ocean ecosystem."
Otters can migrate into the waters of Southern California without threat of being caught and returned to Northern California.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service quit relocating the otters in 2001, but the SoCal animals had no protection as an endangered species. Now, the furry friends will be afforded the same status as their elite Northern California sisters and brothers. Conservation groups sued the federal government in 2009 to win protection for the otters statewide.
Less than 2,800 sea otters remain on the California coast. Before they were hunted to near extinction, some 16,000 happy waving otters lived in the Pacific Ocean between the Oregon border and Mexico. Also, otter couples hold hands when they sleep, so their mates don't float away. Otters are so much better than people!
Photo by Mike Baird.