The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to allow sea otters to roam freely down the Southern California coastline, abandoning its program to relocate the voracious shellfish eaters from waters reserved for fishermen.
Federal officials determined that their sea otter trans-location program had failed after 25 years and thus they were terminating it, according to a decision published in the Federal Register on Wednesday.
"As a result," the federal notice said, "it allows sea otters to expand their range naturally into Southern California."
Federal officials turned Southern California into an "otter-free zone" in the late 1980s after moving 140 otters from Monterey Bay to San Nicolas Island, about 60 miles off the coast of Ventura County. The idea was to establish a reserve colony of otters in case a disaster, such as a catastrophic oil spill, wiped out the otters along the coast.
In a deal cut with fishermen, the government declared waters south of Point Conception to be off limits to otters. It promised to round up any that strayed into forbidding territory. Initially, officials attempted to capture and relocate these wandering otters to Central California, but some swam right back to Southern California. Others were found dead shortly after the move.
Scientists estimate that about 16,000 sea otters once lived along the California coast before they were nearly hunted to extinction for their luxurious pelts. The federal government declared them threatened with extinction in 1977 and their numbers have not increased much -- as they suffer from disease, parasites, inadequate food supplies, shark bites and the occasional bullet wound. An estimated 2,792 remain in the wild.
The abandoned promise of otter-free waters is likely to anger urchin divers and other shellfish fishermen who believe the otters can devastate shellfish stocks and put them out of business.
Yet the announcement was welcomed by conservation groups dedicated to saving the furry, button-nosed marine mammals.
"It's long overdue," said Jim Curland, advocacy program director for Friends of the Sea Otter. But it's great, he said, that the otters can now expand throughout their natural range.