WATSONVILLE -- Federal authorities lifted a quarter-century no-otter zone for the waters off Southern California on Tuesday.
The end of the ban south of Point Conception extends federal protections to otters throughout their historic range along California's coast.
"Trying to tell a marine mammal to stay on one side of an imaginary line across the water was a dumb idea," said Steve Shimek, executive director of The Otter Project. The change in policy "will not only protect sea otters from harm, but because of the otters' critical role in the environment, it will also help restore our local ocean ecosystem."
Otters can migrate into the waters of Southern California without threat of being caught and returned to Northern California.
The Monterey-based advocacy group, along with the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center fought the no-otter zone in court. The 2009 settlement of the lawsuit led to Tuesday's action by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after a series of hearings and an environmental review.
Some 12,000 to 16,000 southern sea otters once roamed from Oregon to Baja, Mexico, but the species was hunted to near extinction for its fur during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The no-otter zone was established in 1987, as federal authorities, worried about a catastrophe such as an oil spill wiping out the chance of a recovery for the threatened species, attempted to establish a back-up population on a remote Channel Island.
Commercial fishing and oil interests, as well as the Navy, objected to the plan to bring otters south, where they could compete for resources and complicate offshore development. To appease opponents, federal authorities restricted otters in southern waters to San Nicolas Island.
The otters, however, ignored the rule. Those at San Nicolas refused to stay put, and the population there dwindled. Others wandered south from more northern waters.
In 2001 federal officials announced they would no longer enforce the ban, but without the legal protections enjoyed by the species north of Point Conception, otters remained at risk in southern waters. That led to the lawsuit filed by the two environmental groups, which maintain the species needs to reoccupy its historic territory to recover.
Follow Sentinel reporter Donna Jones on Twitter at Twitter.com/DonnaJonesSCS