The Coast News Group
With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service overturning a ruling on “otter free zones,” the waters off of San Diego’s coastline may see the increasing presence of otters in the next several decades or so. Photo courtesy of The Otter Project and Jeff Foott

Sea otters eventually to arrive in San Diego with ban being lifted

COAST CITIES — Otters will likely migrate to San Diego thanks to a new ruling from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

The Fish and Wildlife Service recently ended the “otter-free zone” ruling because of objections from environmentalists and other groups.

After being banned in waters south of Point Conception for more than 20 years, the otters will be free to roam the entire coastline. But don’t expect to see them in local waters in the near future.

Sea otters are rare in San Diego, and it could be “several decades or more” until a steady population is established locally, according to Lilian Carswell, southern sea otter coordinator for Fish and Wildlife.

“The recent ruling equals otters returning to their natural migration,” Carswell said, referring to otter territories that once peppered northern Mexico to San Francisco. “From history, the otter population moves in fits and starts. It’s difficult to anticipate where exactly they’ll move to and the time frame.”

Typically, otter colonies on the move don’t migrate more than 5 to 20 miles a year. Until then, San Diegans might spot an otter here or there, but that’s it, Carswell said.

No matter the otters’ speed, many Southern California fishermen have stated they’re concerned about otters encroaching on their territories. Fisheries blossomed in the absence of abalone and urchin-devouring otters. Pete Halmay, a local urchin fishermen, believes there are more pressing issues than otters for local fishermen.

“I think the otter-free zone was a bad idea enough to begin with,” Halmay said. “That said, I like to look at the big picture,” Halmay added. “Issues like ocean acidification are more important in the long term. Acidification could wipe out species of fish.”

Steve Shimek, director of The Otter Project, cheered the ruling.

“The zone was a mess from day one,” Shimek said. “The otters weren’t going to conform to an imaginary line. They were following their natural range.”

He believes the greater environmental protections that were a part of Fish and Wildlife’s decision will curb incidents of otters being shot or run over by boats. Now they can safely migrate south, he said.

“This decision will jumpstart the otter population in California,” Shimek said.

With the zone being lifted, Fish and Wildlife will no longer be removing the otters from Southern California waters. Also, the decision guarantees otters the same environmental protection as otters to the north, and development plans have to take them into account.

Carswell noted that scientists estimate 16,000 otters, some of which were in San Diego, populated California’s coastline in the early 1800s. But fur traders almost hunted them to extinction.

Carswell explained that 30 years ago people were worried that an environmental disaster like an oil spill could wipe out the dwindling population of sea otters along the coast of Central California.

In response to those concerns Fish and Wildlife relocated 140 otters from Monterey to San Nicolas Island, off the coast of Ventura, with the hopes of creating a thriving colony.

As part of that relocation process, Fish and Wildlife banned sea otters from moving south of Point Conception to appease fishermen, who were worried the otters would wipe out the urchin and abalone.

To enforce the otter-free zone in Southern California, divers from Fish and Wildlife captured stray otters via non-lethal means. However, many otters still swam back to Central California. Others made their way into the otter-free zone. Unable to control the otters, Fish and Game scrapped the San Nicolas relocation program in 1993, according to Carswell.

“Relocating them wasn’t fully thought through,” Carswell said.

More than 150 otters moved en masse into the otter-free zone in 1998. In response, fishermen sued Fish and Wildlife, demanding the federal agency trap and remove them. Fish and Wildlife won the lawsuit and said it would no longer restrict the otters’ movement.

But because the otter-free zone was technically still in place, many environmental groups said the otters weren’t afforded environmental protections, preventing them from successfully traveling south.

Currently, there are approximately 3,000 otters in California. Some of the otters face a depleted food supply in parts of Central California. Accordingly, they’re motivated to move south, where urchins and abalone are more abundant.

After recovering over the last few decades, the otter population has plateaued in the last five years. Food shortages are one reason; sharks preying on the otters is another.

“We’re not entirely sure why there’s been a rise in shark-bite mortalities,” Carswell said. Still, Carswell said Southern California being open again could give the otter population a chance to grow.

“They have a new area to move into,” Carswell. “There are more food opportunities.”