Otters Out Of Exile
Feds recommend ending the “no-otter zone.”
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Sea otters must be celebrating what amounts to a relaxed immigration policy in the works, which will officially allow them to expand their range to southern California—something biologists say is critical to the threatened species’ survival.
In 1987 the US Fish and Wildlife Service, responsible for the sea otter’s recovery since its 1977 listing under the Endangered Species Act, created an experimental otter colony on San Nicolas Island, about 60 miles west of Los Angeles. Congress approved the program on the condition that the agency also designate a “no-otter” zone from Point Conception to the Mexican border, including the Channel Islands (with the exception of San Nic). Technically the purpose was to isolate the experimental colony, but USFWS’s Lilian Carswell explains that the no-otter zone was also a compromise to placate shell fishermen, who didn’t like the competition with otters, and oil companies, which didn’t want to be held liable if an oil spill harmed the protected species.
By 1990, the USFWS had plunked 140 otters onto San Nicolas in a process called translocation. Most of the otters didn’t like it. Some of them died; others swam the hell away from there like fugitives from Alcatraz, shocking researchers with their deep-channel-crossing skills. By 1993, only a dozen had stayed put.
Escaping San Nic meant entering verboten territory. Under the federal law, USFWS agents were required to capture escapees in the no-otter zone and take them back to the island. They also picked up intrepid mainland otters that moved south—generally males searching for tail and territory—and returned them to their designated range along the Central Coast.
In 1993, realizing that it was wasting money and freaking out otters, the USFWS informally stopped maintaining the no-otter zone. But around 1998 otters started moving seasonally into the forbidden area in numbers the USFWS couldn’t ignore. “It really brought the decision to a head: Are we gonna move sea otters?” Carswell says.
Meanwhile, the population on San Nic recovered from its crash, stabilized, and began to grow. Researchers counted 14 adult otters in spring 1995, 21 in 2000 and 35 in 2006. That represents an average growth rate of about 8 percent per year—faster than the mainland population’s sluggish 3 percent, but still short of researchers’ expectation of about 17 percent, based on precedent.
As UC Santa Cruz otter researcher Tim Tinker explains, the San Nic experiment didn’t come out of the deep blue. In the 1970s and ’80s, the USFWS translocated northern sea otters to the coasts of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and southeast Alaska. The Oregon colony went extinct, but the others, after initial crashes, have thrived. So it was logical for the USFWS to try the same experiment with the northern otter’s hard-luck cousin on the California coast, especially as researchers realized the population of about 2,700 could be wiped out by a single oil spill. Having a Noah’s Arc on San Nic could allow the USFWS to build up the population again—though with a bottlenecked gene pool—as it did in the early 1900s, when fur traders had killed all of California’s otters except a raft of survivors near Big Sur.
The USFWS admitted defeat in a 2003 report. “[O]ur earlier assumption that the mainland population, if decimated by an oil spill or other event, could be restored using small numbers of animals from the San Nicolas Island colony may not be realistic,” it reads.
And so the future of the translocation program is open to debate. Researchers with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program (SORAC) argue that preventing otters’ range expansion to the south works against the species’ recovery. “You’re going through a very laborious process,” SORAC researcher Gena Bentall says, “something that’s traumatic to the animal, and ultimately they’re just going back to where they came from.”
But some within the fishing industry want the USFWS to get back with the program it started in 1987.
“It’s very simple: If our areas are not managed [to keep otters out], there’s no shell fishery,” says Robert Juntz, Jr., who owns a sea urchin processing plant. Otters already compete with fishermen along the California coast from Half Moon Bay to Point Conception, he adds. “That’s a pretty good territory. I’d like them to cap it where it is.”
He’ll likely be disappointed by the agency’s decision. In 2000 the USFWS determined that maintaining the no-otter zone would jeopardize the subspecies’ survival, and today it’s in the process of writing a supplemental environmental impact statement that recommends ending the translocation program altogether.
If you listen closely along the coast, you might hear the squeaky sound of otters toasting: Freedom, at last.