WATSONVILLE -- Southern sea otters are one step closer to swimming into coastal waters south of Santa Barbara.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday released the final environmental report prior to a decision on lifting a 24-year-old ban on the marine mammals off the Southern California coast.

The agency favors ending the prohibition that left otters without the federal protections they enjoy north of Point Conception. A final decision is expected by the end of the year.

"Frankly, if the no otter zone is enforced, which is one of the alternatives, otters will be trapped and put here," said Steve Shimek of the Monterey-based Otter Project, one of two groups that successfully sued the federal agency to overturn the ban.

Relocation has caused problems in the past, Shimek said. Otters are territorial, he said, and outsiders moved here end up fighting to find space or they return to their native waters, where they get caught up in a cycle of trapping and relocating until they die.

"You either have social disruption of the local population or you wind up killing the otters because they get trapped and retrapped," Shimek said. "That's not a good way to treat an indigenous species."

The southern sea otter once roamed from Oregon to Baja, Mexico. But they were hunted to near extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries for the fur trade.

Today, about 3,000 otters survive, mainly along the Central Coast, and the species is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.


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In the late 1980s, federal officials worried that recovery of the species would be doomed by a catastropic event introduced a "translocation program," moving 140 otters to the remote Channel Island of San Nicolas near Los Angeles as a back-up population. To appease foes in the fishing industry, officials also established the ban on the otters elsewhere in southern waters.

Opposition to the change in policy also comes from the commercial fishing community, where people are concerned about the otter as a competitor for resources, and about the regulations they'll be forced to heed to protect the otters.

The agency's environmental statement concedes otters and fisheries likely will come into conflict. But goes on to say that sea otters have shown an ability to "return rapidly" to their home waters.

"Our ability to influence sea otter movements by means of capture and removal is limited, and continuing efforts to remove sea otters non-lethally from areas where they choose to reside appears to be futile," the document says.

Follow Sentinel reporter Donna Jones on Twitter at Twitter.com/DonnaJonesSCS

at a glance

Sea otter plan


WHAT: U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials release environmental statement in advance of decision on lifting ban on sea otters south of Point Conception
WHY: 24-year-old program to breed back-up population failed
WHEN: Decision expected before Dec. 31
DETAILS: www.fws.gov/ventura/species_information/so_sea_otter