Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Southern California’s ‘no otter’ zone on the brink of elimination

Michael "Mike" L. Baird/Flickr

It was announced last week that the California Coastal Commission has confirmed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s latest proposal to end the 1987 “no otter” zone program is good and in line with protection policies of the California Coastal Act. The Commission’s approval is the latest step in repealing the unsuccessful “otter translocation program” that barred southern sea otters from California waters south of Point Conception outside of a very specific location.

“The original purpose of the ruling was to protect the otters after they were deemed an endangered species, so there were good intentions,” explained Brian Segee, staff attorney with the Environmental Defense Center, when reached by telephone. “But as the translocation program moved forward, it was an obvious failure.”

The program had been designed to repopulate Southern California waters with sea otters translocated from the Central Coast, the caveat being they remain confined to San Nicolas Island and the surrounding area. The rest of the Southern California coast was deemed the aforementioned “no otter" zone. It didn’t work.

 “The otters were basically not paying attention to the lines in the sea,” Segee said. “The service moved 140 otters to the island, and only 10 percent could be accounted for after a couple of years. A lot of them immediately swam back to their original habitat along the Central Coast; others became injured and died. There was a high mortality rate. With the California Coastal Commission agreeing to this latest Environmental Impact Statement, we’re just one step away from finally eliminating the ‘No Otter’ zone for good.”

Once the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues the final version of that latest EIS (and accompanying Record of Decision), the requisite 30 day post-publication period appears to be the only remaining obstacle to otters being able to swim freely in Southern California waters.

Even though Segee is confident that the formal termination of the program is right around the corner, he’ll wait until the final decision (which must be reached by December of this year) comes down to start celebrating. Segee also explained how the decision would come with a significant exception.

“The shellfish industry, which has done everything possible to delay the proposal, has been successful in passing legislation in the House of Representatives that would exempt them from these otter protections that would otherwise apply,” he detailed. “As it stands now, while the otters would be free to swim and live in Southern California waters, the shellfish industry will still have the freedom to kill and harass those otters. It’s a special interest provision that’s attached to a bill that has to do with national defense. They get to play by different rules than the rest of the fishing industry in the state.

“Fisheries change with the presence of sea otters, they don’t disappear,” Segee added, explaining how the EDC was able to beat back a loophole that would have allowed the shellfisheries to continue enforcing the “no otter” zone even in a post-zone world. “These animals benefit the overall eco-system of the ocean, and are just trying to survive.”