Should Sea Otters Repopulate Southern California?

They're not just adorable. They are also key to the health of California's kelp forests and the many other marine critters that depend on kelp forest habitat.

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Should sea otters be allowed to repopulate Southern California?

Seems like a strange question, right?

When a highly imperiled species starts to recover in its native habitat, we should all be grateful and welcome them back. This has certainly been the story of the American bald eagle.

First off, let’s establish that these guys are undeniably cute. Did you know otters hold hands while they sleep so as not to be swept away from their loved ones?

And they’re not just adorable. They are also key to the health of California’s kelp forests and the many other marine critters—including shellfish and finfish—that depend on kelp forest habitat.

But being a cute keystone predator hasn’t protected the sea otter. Consider the history.

An estimated 16,000 sea otters once populated California’s shorelines. The species was decimated by Russian and Spanish trappers long before California was even a state. In 1938 when the last remaining population of sea otters was discovered in Big Sur, they numbered just 50. Today, with much effort by government agencies and conservation groups, the population in California hovers at under 2,800 individuals. Even with these efforts, sea otters face many obstacles in the swim to recovery and haven’t exhibited any net increase in population numbers since 2006.

Sadly, in 1986, at the behest of abalone and urchin fishers, sea otters were banned from the entire California coastline south of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County. Because sea otters find abalone and urchins so tasty, they were viewed as competition by folks who harvest our public marine resources and sell them to sushi and fancy seafood restaurants. Never mind that there was never a lack of sea otters, abalone, nor urchins before humans started making money harvesting them.

The ban was enacted in response to fishermen’s complaints after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its plan to establish a population of sea otters at San Nicolas Island off Ventura County. The idea was that this population would be safe from a catastrophic event like an oil spill that could wipe out otters along the coast. Congress then enacted a law authorizing the so-called “no-otter zone” south of Point Conception, where otters could be trapped and hauled away to other areas.

The Fish and Wildlife Service quickly realized that relocating otters to San Nicolas was causing more harm than good. Some were injured, others died trying to swim back to their preferred habitat along the California coast. The agency stopped those relocation efforts in 1990.

In 2001, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would also stop trapping and removing sea otters from the “no-otter zone” because the program was preventing the otter population from recovering. Finally, sea otters were allowed to do what nature told them to do: go home and multiply.

This week, abalone and urchin fishing interests, represented by the proudly anti-environmental Pacific Legal Foundation, filed a lawsuit to reinstate the ban on sea otters south of Point Conception. Earthjustice and our partners at Friends of the Sea Otter, Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity will defend the decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

An Earthjustice staff member from 1999 until 2015, Brian used outreach and partnership skills to cover many issues, including advocacy campaign efforts to promote a healthy ocean.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.