2013 hasn’t quite begun but the new year is already shaping up well for California’s otters. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that they will be free to swim where they wish, thanks to the official lifting of the “otter-free zone” off the coast of California.
Of course, the notion that there was ever something like an area where otters would not, could not, swim is basically just wishful thinking on humans’ part. After all, until the 19th century, otters swam from the western coast of Mexico all the way north to San Francisco. Unfortunately, the thick, soft fur that kept them warm was irresistible to fur traders and their numbers dropped to as low as fifteen two decades ago, notes the New York Times
Thanks to conservation efforts, there are now about 2,800 otters. Should their numbers rise above 3,090 they could even be taken off the endangered species list. A healthy otter population can help to replenish Southern California’s coastal ecosystem as otters’ presence is very good news for kelp forests, which provide a home for hundreds of species.
The otters have faced numerous obstacles including well-intentioned but misguided efforts to limit them to a specific “zone.” In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to establish a separate population of otters in Southern California by moving 140 to San Nicolas Island. Doing so was meant to alleviate the concerns of fishermen and the U. S. Navy, which conducts training operations in the very waters the migrating otters swam into. Navy officials feared that, due to the otters’ protected status, they would have to conduct full-fledged environmental impact reviews before each training exercise and face penalties should any otters be killed.
But the otters simply swam where they would, back up to the central coast of California and to areas that had been designated “otter free zones” including Point Conception. As the executive director of the Otter Project, Steve Shimek, says in SFGate, “Trying to tell a marine mammal to stay on one side of an imaginary line across the water was a dumb idea.”
It took ten years for the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a formal decision to eliminate the no-otter zone. Part of the agreement was that the Navy has been exempted from any penalties should otters be affected by its operations.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s announcement is not the news everyone wanted to hear. Otters represent competition for shellfish and sea urchins. The latter are part of a multimillion dollar industry, with divers collecting sea urchins to sell to sushi restaurants.
The otters still need all the help they can get. Lillian Carswell of the Fish and Wildlife Service notes that the regrowth of the otter population is in a “point of stagnation,” due to more reports of sharks killing otters and “things we don’t understand.”
The rescinding of the otter-free zone is certainly good news, on top of President Obama’s decision to add more than 2,700 square miles off the Northern California coast to the national marine sanctuary system, doubling its size and protecting the area from oil and gas drilling permanently. Now the otters can do as they have for centuries and swim in the waters off the central coast of California.
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