The transmission was loud and clear on the VHF radio. “Hey, I saw an otter in the kelp bed off Summerland.” As I listened in on the conversation, I couldn’t believe it: an otter this far down in the no-otter zone?
A few days later, while kayaking out to an oil platform, I slowly paddled through the Carpinteria reef on my return. There’s more kelp growing on the reef now than there has been in several years, making a perfect habitat for a bevy of southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). It seemed as though one might surface above the thick raft of kelp at any moment, but I never spotted one.
However, it may not be too long before otter sightings become the norm rather than the exception in Ventura and Santa Barbara county waters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is forging ahead with its plans to lift the ban on otters in the no-otter zone. First the USFWS is receiving and assessing public comment until Jan. 5, 2006.
After all the comments have been thoroughly reviewed, the USFWS will publish a final supplemental environmental impact statement, followed by a record of decisions as to allowing otters back in the no-otter zone.
“It’s going to take time,” said Greg Sanders, a biologist and southern sea otter recovery coordinator for the USFWS. “The ban will be lifted in June 2006 at the earliest.”
The no-otter zone began in 1987 during the Reagan administration and under the authority of the Endangered Species Act. The USFWS initiated the program to establish an experimental population of southern sea otters at San Nicholas Island. The program included a strategy to manage the sea otter population by removing otters that strayed into the “management zone” in ocean waters south of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County. Fish and Wildlife also struck a deal with urchin and abalone divers and oil and gas developers threatened by sea otters to keep otters north of Point Conception.
However, after nearly 20 years, the USFWS has deemed the program a failure. Around 140 otters ranging from Half Moon Bay south to Point Conception were moved to San Nicholas in hopes of establishing a population that would ultimately enhance the recoveryof the southern sea otter, an endangered species. Contrary to expectations, an independent population of sea otters failed to become established.
“Many fishermen feel threatened because they’re in direct competition with sea otters. They’re very concerned. They can’t coexist,” said Sanders. “This will change oil and gas regulations. Oil and otters don’t mix.”
From 1987 to 1993, the USFWS removed 24 sea otters from the “management zone,” but halted operations in February of 1993. The translocation and management zones still exist, but all capture and transport of sea otters has been suspended.
“We can’t expect them (the otters) to stay put,” explained Sanders. “The reality is, it’s difficult if not impossible to expect them to stay away.”
Sanders said that large groups of otters have already impacted areas around Cojo in Hollister ranch, but that it would be decades before otters colonized southern California. Most of the otters seen in the current no-otter zone are wandering otters that are mostly males.
“What seems to keep them in the same spot is females,” said Sanders. “We’ve seen otters as far down as Dana Point.”
Historically, the southern sea otter ranged from northern California and Oregon south to Baja California, Mexico. During the 18th and 19th centuries, otters were hunted for their thick, luxurious pelts and, by the early 1900s, it was believed the species was extinct.
Today’s population descended from a small remnant colony found off the rugged Big Sur coastline in 1938. The growing population is found along a 300-mile stretch extending from Half Moon Bay to Point Conception. A spring 2005 survey recorded 2,735 sea otters. Sea otters usually live for 15 years.
Sea otters feed primarily on a variety of near-shore invertebrates, including sea urchins, abalone, rock crabs, kelp crabs and clams. Their use of tools to break open their food makes sea otters unique among marine mammals. To satisfy their high energy requirements, sea otters spend the majority of their time foraging for food and eat an average of 25 percent of their body weight per day. This is what concerns urchin and abalone divers making a living along our coast.
“They (USFWS) did uphold their part of the bargain for a while,” said Bruce Steele, representative for the California Sea Urchin Commission. “I know a lot of people aren’t worried about what happens with fishermen, but the reality is humans intervene against our best wishes and now they (USFWS) want to get out of it.”
Steele noted that sea otter populations grow more slowly in California at 5 percent per year as opposed to 18 percent in Alaska. He said 50 percent of sea otter deaths are caused by diseases reaching the watershed, eventually bio-accumulating in filter feeders in the ocean.
“The problem is urbanization in this state,” he said.