What you otter know: California’s “No-Otter Zone”

The Otter Project

For some of us, the 80’s were hard.  They meant ill-advised side ponytails, far too much spandex, and awkward high school social interactions.  Yet, no matter how rough it may have been for humans, the sea otters living off the California coast had a much tougher go of things.

In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, under the advice of Ronald Reagan and Strom Thurmond established a “No-Otter Zone” spanning from Point Conception south to the Mexican Border.  The Zone was created in response to complaints from the fishing industry that the otters were a threat to commercial species, and from oil companies worried that having such a cute and cuddly ocean ambassador would impede their drilling activities.

Even though the otters were protected by the Endangered Species Act as well as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, these animals were translocated to an “experimental” colony around San Nicholas Island in efforts to manage their populations.  The reasoning for the move was that in the event of an oil spill, large numbers of otters would perish, leaving the stocks depleted.  Having a reserve colony off the distant Channel Island could in effect save the bloodline and preserve genetic diversity.

Sadly, the translocation project was an abject failure.  Many otters died, disappeared, or swam back to their previous homes.  In 1993, only 12 otters out of the expected 150 lived off of the island.  The FWS found itself moving otters back at the cost of nearly $10,000 per animal, and encountered dead or sick otters that could have suffered adverse effects from transportation.  The FWS decided to stop containing the otters, but also did nothing to alter the law.

After years of lawsuits brought by both fisherman and environmentalists, the No-Otter Zone remains in effect although not enforced.  Otters are moving back into the the territory, but are still considered vulnerable until the legislation is officially repealed.

To advocate for protecting the otters, community members are invited to attend the FWS’s upcoming hearing in Santa Barbara on October4 from 5-8pm at the Fleischman Auditorium at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.  In addition, supporters are encouraged to write the FWS and local senators and representatives asking for a repeal of the No-Otter Zone.

For more information, visit the Otter Project’s Website to see how you can help one of California’s most famous residents!


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