U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Airs Plan to Restore Sea Otter Range
• The Malibu Coast Could Eventually Be Home Again to the Marine Mammals That Were Once Common
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
Before it was threatened with extinction, the southern sea otter once lived in the kelp forests along the Malibu coast.
This month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has published a revised draft supplemental environmental impact statement for a plan that would allow the marine mammal to return to its historic range in Southern California, after decades of being sequestered in a limited portion of the Central Coast and Channel Islands.
The document is now available for public comment.
Hunted to the edge of extinction by the fur trade—in 1935 the population was estimated at just 50—the southern sea otter was listed as an endangered species in 1972. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the population currently numbers approximately 2000 and is still threatened. An oil spill or other disaster has the potential to wipe out the species in the wild, according to DSEIR.
According to the report, "historically, sea otters ranged along the North Pacific rim from the northern Japanese islands to mid-Baja California, Mexico. Southern sea otters occupied the southern portion of this range to northern California or Oregon, or possibly as far north as Prince William Sound in Alaska.
"The California population prior to exploitation is thought to have numbered about 16,000 animals. During the 18th and 19th centuries, sea otters were hunted for their luxurious pelts, and by the early 1900s, the species was believed to be extinct in California."
All of the existing southern sea otters are descended from that colony of 50 individuals that survived along the Big Sur coast.
The report states that, while the southern sea otter population has grown slowly since that time, it has exhibited high levels of mortality in recent years.
For decades, the California range of the southern sea otter has been restricted to a small portion of Central Coast, centered at Monterey Bay, despite once having a range that was much more extensive. Fishing interests have repeatedly pressured the federal government to relocate sea otters that migrate further south.
However, a federally funded program to relocated otters to a new colony at San Nicholas Island has not been a success and the revised plan proposes discontinuing the translocation plan in favor of allowing the animals to recolonize the south coast of the mainland without human interference.
"The purpose of this Revised Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) is to reevaluate the effects of the southern sea otter translocation plan, as described in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 1987 environmental impact statement on the translocation of southern sea otters," the document states. "Using information obtained over the decades since the plan's implementation, we evaluate the impacts of alternatives to the current translocation program, including termination of the program or revisions to it.
"The need for action stems from our inability to meet the goals of the southern sea otter translocation program. Contrary to the primary recovery objective of the program, the translocation of sea otters to San Nicolas Island has not resulted in an established population sufficient to repopulate other areas of the range should a catastrophic event affect the mainland population. Additionally, maintenance of a management zone has proven to be more difficult than anticipated and hinders or may prevent recovery of the southern sea otter."
The report states that the sea otter population along the mainland coast of California is increasing, but much more slowly than other recovering sea otter populations, which have grown at rates of up to 17-20 percent annually.
Southern sea otters along the mainland have never increased more than five-six percent per year, and recent growth rates have reportedly been highest at the southern end of the range.
"Allowing natural range expansion is key to recovery, according to the recovery plan. The translocation program allowed the reintroduction of sea otters to San Nicolas Island but also required the removal of sea otters from a 'no-otter' management zone. The program is currently being reviewed through the National Environmental Policy Act process," the report concludes.
Observers say that the new South Coast network of Marine Protected Areas, including the State Marine Reserve and State Marine Conservation Area at Point Dume, scheduled to go into effect later this year, could provide safe habitat for sea otters if the restriction is lifted.
Otters are occasionally observed in western Malibu, off Leo Carrillo and Nicholas beaches, although evidence is generally anecdotal.
The revised plan is expected to receive stiff opposition from fishing interests, who regard the otter as competition for shellfish and have reportedly resorted to killing otters in the past, despite their threatened species status.
The document states: "However, in light of the now-well-established capacities of sea otters to return rapidly to areas from which they have been removed, it is clear that our ability to influence sea otter movements by means of capture and removal is limited, and continuing efforts to remove sea otters non-lethally from areas where they choose to reside appears to be futile.
"To mitigate regulatory effects that may occur as a result of this alternative, if chosen, we are working with the Department of Defense to identify possible mutually agreeable solutions.
The document suggests that "If sea otters do naturally expand their range into Southern California, changes in the nearshore environment will take place over many decades, allowing for a gradual transition of fishery and ecotourism activities that would likely dampen any regional economic impacts that could occur."
The 60-day comment period for the plan opens on Aug. 26. The document is available online at: www.fws.gov/ventura/species_information/so_sea_otter/index.html
A final SEIS and Record of Decision is projected for 2012.