California sea otters will start the new year with a vast new range of territory far south of their government-imposed grounds north of Point Conception.
Beginning on Jan. 18, they are free to swim south into waters off Los Angeles, San Diego and Baja - places they frequented before they were forcibly relocated to a remote Channel Island in the 1980s.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to lift the "no-otter" zone this month after a thorough review found that the translocation program that started it was essentially a failure.
About 140 sea otters living between the Mexican border and Point Conception, north of Santa Barbara, were gathered up and taken to San Nicolas Island in 1987. The purpose of the move was to establish a colony of otters far enough away from the coast to protect it from oil spills or other catastrophes. As coastal marine mammals, sea otters are particularly susceptible to pollution runoff and other near-shore toxins.
A no-otter zone south of Point Conception was then instituted to keep otters, which are voracious shellfish eaters, from infringing on commercial fishers.
Many of the relocated otters swam back to Central California or to coastal waters, or simply died. Officials realized the relocation program was a failure years ago and stopped enforcing it by the early 1990s.
"It seems really silly to have" a relocation program, said Los Angeles Waterkeeper spokeswoman Liz Crosson.
Sea otters eat the sea urchins that can decimate kelp forests, Crossan explained.
Lifting the no-otter zone will also bring the marine mammals greater legal protection against harm because they are listed as a federally threatened species, Crosson said.
Bernardo Alps, a local marine mammal expert, said he has seen a sea otter this year and hears reports of sightings a few times a year off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
"Lately they've been seen several times a year down here. There are areas near Santa Barbara where they're a lot more regular," Alps said, adding that they may venture south because "usually young males roam to establish new territories."
There are fewer than 3,000 southern sea otters living off California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. They were hunted to near extinction for their fur, and only 50 survivors were found off the coast of Big Sur by the 1930s.
Their numbers are growing very slowly because of numerous threats that cause die-offs, including algal toxins, parasites, infectious diseases, bacterial infections, boat strikes, shark bites, starvation and heart disease.
Lilian Carswell, the southern sea otter recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that lifting the no-otter zone may reinvigorate their population.
"With natural factors like the shark bites and food limitation, there's little we can or should do," Carswell said in a written statement. "But to cope with non-natural factors, the population recovery at the very least will depend on sea otters expanding into new areas that can support sustained populations."
Sea otters, which range from 45 to 65 pounds as adults, do not have blubber, so they must eat about 25 percent of their body weight daily to maintain high metabolisms and stay warm.
When they settle in an area, they decimate its shellfish population and force local fishers to go elsewhere, said David Goldenberg, executive director for the California Sea Urchin Commission. His group, which represents hundreds of independent California urchin divers, supported the no-otter zone.
"When otters go into an area, they close the area for diving because they're endangered," Goldenberg said. "So otters have free roam to eat. As otters move, they're going to be displacing fishermen. You can't be in competition with an endangered species."
As otter populations expand, they will "eat themselves out of house and home," Goldenberg said, leaving areas barren of shellfish.
He said the relocation program could have been a success had it been properly implemented.
"They failed to move the number of animals they said they were going to," Goldenberg said. "When they went back later to see how the population rebounded after they moved animals, they found they hadn't met the criteria."
Goldenberg said the Fish and Wildlife Service should have focused on ways to reduce ocean pollution and toxins that kill otters instead of removing the no-otter zone.
"Rather than addressing the real problem of why these animals haven't replicated, they chose to ignore that because it's a harder issue to address," he said. "It's easier to say: `Let the animals roam and we'll put fishermen out of business."'
Los Angeles Waterkeeper is trying to fill the void left by the loss of otters off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. An overabundance of sea urchins - one of the otters' favorite foods - have created 50 "urchin barrens" in the area, decimating kelp forests that many coastal species need to survive, Crosson said.
To counteract this problem, L.A. Waterkeeper is working to redistribute urchins over a larger area in hopes of expanding a 10-acre kelp forest to a 50-acre forest in future years.
"In our minds, it's very important that we remove any obstacles to help sea otters return," Crosson said. "There are about 800 species that thrive in kelp forests, and we've seen an 80 percent reduction in that in the last 100 years."