Sea Otters May Be the Next Major Enviro Success Story Off Malibu’s Coast
• Most of 27,000 Instances of Input Favored Termination of the Federal Translocation Program
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
California sea otters, once regularly spotted in Malibu’s kelp forests, may have the opportunity to return to their former southern range thanks to a U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service decision to terminate the 25-year old southern sea otter translocation program.
The decision means that sea otters will be able to continue to expand their range naturally into southern California waters in accordance with the recommendations of the 2003 revised southern sea otter recovery plan.
The rule takes effect on Jan. 18, 2013, and removes the regulations that govern the translocation program, according to a DFW press release.
“Sea otters at San Nicolas Island, offspring of the original sea otters translocated to the island under the program, will be allowed to remain there. Once the rulemaking becomes effective, the special exemptions to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act associated with the translocation program’s management and translocation zones will cease to exist, and all sea otters found in the waters south of Point Conception will be considered a threatened species under the ESA—the same status as the remainder of the population that resides along the California coast.”
“The decision culminates an approximately decade-long process during which the Service evaluated the translocation program and alternatives to it. During that period, the Service solicited and received extensive public comment. The vast majority of the approximately 27,000 comment letters, emails, and postcards received expressed support for termination of the translocation program,” the press release states.
“Originally designed to provide a safeguard against population loss from an environmental catastrophe such as an oil spill, the translocation program was established by regulation in 1987 under the authority of Public Law 99-625, passed by Congress in 1986,” the DFW press release states. “The program’s aim was to provide for sea otter recovery while avoiding potential conflicts between sea otters and other interests, such as commercial fishing. Although the law did not require the Service to implement a translocation program, it mandated that if a translocation program were put in place, it would have a “translocation zone” (where sea otters would be brought) and a “management zone,” which would be kept otter-free by non-lethal means. The Service designated the area around San Nicolas Island as the translocation zone, into which part of the sea otter population was relocated in order to establish a new, separate population, and initiated efforts to capture and remove any sea otters that were found south of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County, California.”
The program relocated 140 sea otters to San Nicolas Island from the population along the central California coast in 1987, but could not keep them there. Most reportedly left the island within days, returning to their family groups on the central coast.
“Contrary to the primary recovery objective of the program, the translocation of sea otters to San Nicolas Island did not result in an established population that could serve as a source of animals to repopulate other areas of the range if a catastrophic event struck the mainland population,” the press release states. “Also, maintenance of a management zone proved to be inefficient and ineffective—with some sea otters swimming back to it even after being transported up to 200 miles away—and caused the deaths of some sea otters, resulting in the suspension of containment operations in 1993.”
In 2009, the Environmental De?fense Center successfully challenged the translocation program in court.
“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. “This rule 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.”
“Southern sea otters have been largely absent from their historic southern California habitat for far too long,” stated Brian Segee, EDC Staff Attorney and lead attorney in the litigation and subsequent settlement. “This decision is a critical step in efforts to recover southern sea otters, by formally allowing this charismatic and intelligent species to naturally return to waters south of Point Conception.”
“Under the decision, sea otters are now legally free to float the sunny southern California waters without the threat of being trapped and ‘deported’ to northern California. Sea otters in southern California will have the same protections under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act as otters to the north, including being protected from harm from any new development plans that could impact their recovery, an Otter Project press release states.
Southern sea otters were listed as threatened under the ESA in 1977. Today, there are just under 2800 southern sea otters inhabiting the coastline from San Mateo County south to Santa Barbara County and approximately 50 sea otters at San Nicolas Island in Ventura County.
In recent years, individual sea otters are occasionally sighted as far south as Leo Carrillo State Park.
Otter activists have indicated that the Point Dume State Marine Reserve, where all human fishing activities are prohibited, could once again provide viable habitat for sea otters.
The final rule and record of decision is available at: http://www.ofr.gov/inspection.aspx.