The 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 99 – 625, 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)