AboutZoos, Since 2008


No-​otter zone’ finally lifted in Cal­i­for­nia, and all sea otters con­sid­ered a threat­ened species

pub­lished 03 Jan­u­ary 2013 | mod­i­fied 03 Jan­u­ary 2013

Southern sea otterThe U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice decided 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 Final Rule and Record of Deci­sion on the ter­mi­na­tion of the translo­ca­tion pro­gram has been pub­lished in the Fed­eral Reg­is­ter on Decem­ber 19. The rule takes effect on Jan­u­ary 18, 2013, and removes the reg­u­la­tions that gov­ern the translo­ca­tion pro­gram. Removal of the reg­u­la­tions ter­mi­nates the pro­gram.

South­ern Sea otters (Enhy­dra lutris nereis) 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 Ser­vice analysed the envi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences of this action, and alter­na­tives to it, in a final sup­ple­men­tal envi­ron­men­tal impact state­ment (final SEIS), which was made avail­able to the pub­lic on Novem­ber 9, 2012. The Final Rule and Record of Deci­sion records the Service’s deci­sion to select the pre­ferred alter­na­tive iden­ti­fied in this final SEIS and imple­ments it. 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.

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 99625, passed by Con­gress in 1986. 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” or “no-​otter 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.

One hun­dred and forty sea otters were moved to San Nico­las Island from the pop­u­la­tion along the cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia coast in 1987, but most left the island within days, many return­ing to their par­ent pop­u­la­tion along the cen­tral coast. Since that time, the pop­u­la­tion of otters at San Nico­las Island has remained small. 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. 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.

South­ern sea otters were listed as threat­ened under the ESA in 1977. Today, there are just under 2,800 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.

(Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice media release, 18.12.2012)

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