August 17, 2011
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans today to end a 24-year-old otter relocation program after determining the program was not meeting its objective of restoring the species.
When the translocation program was implemented in 1987, 140 sea otters were moved from the Central Coast to San Nicolas Island off the coast of Ventura. The program had been designed to establish a sea otter population in a wider geographic region in the event of a disaster, like an oil spill.
The program specified that there would be a specific “translocation zone,” into which sea otters were moved, but also established a “no-otter” zone, which was to be kept otter-free, immediately surrounding the San Nicolas Island shores. In the no-otter zone, otters are not treated as a protected species as they are elsewhere in the U.S.
The Otter Project, a Monterey-based nonprofit, sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 because the program failed to establish a healthy otter population. "Otters are clever, but can’t read," said Otter Project Executive Director Steve Shimek in a statement. "We can't expect sea otters to recognize a pretend water boundary."
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, "contrary to expectations" otters left the island and entered into the no-otter zone.
According to the terms of a settlement reached last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service will consider eliminating the otter-free zone. The Otter Project believes the no-otter zone inhibits otter recovery. Shimek expects the sea urchin industry, which exports to Japan for sushi, is likely to be the lead opposition to eliminating the otter-free zone.
“Today is a good day for California sea otters. We support an end to the ineffective and harmful translocation program and 'no-otter' management zone," said the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Sea Otter and the Humane Society in a statement.
The end of the relocation program does not necessarily mean an end to the otter-free zone, which will be the subject of public hearings and an environmental impact statement later this year. A public information hearing will be held in Santa Cruz on Oct. 6 at 5pm at Seymour Marine Discovery Center, 100 Shaffer Road.