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An otter massages its cheeks, preening the fur around his face while floating in the backwater of Moss Landing Harbor on Tuesday, March 30, 2010. The sea otter population in California was on the decline in 2009 according to The Otter Project. (Dan Coyro/Santa Cruz Sentinel)

After 26 years of a federally-imposed restriction to central coast waters, California's sea otters are now legally allowed to re-occupy part of their historic range from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County south to the Mexican border, giving them a fighting chance to rebuild their population.

Southward migration became legal Jan. 18 thanks to a string of events set in motion in 2009 when The Otter Project of Monterey and the Environmental Defense Center of Santa Barbara sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to overturn what was officially called the Southern Sea Otter Translocation Program.

Under that plan, 140 animals living south of Point Conception were captured by agency employees and carried to San Nicolas Island, an outlier of the California Channel Islands chain. The agency believed that moving sea otters further offshore would make them less vulnerable to spills from oil drilling and tanker traffic.

The establishment of a southern outpost was opposed by nearby offshore oil producers, the U.S. Navy which uses the island, and harvesters who compete with the otter for urchins and abalone. In response, the fish and wildlife service made the concession of banning them from all other waters south of Point Conception, which became known as the "no otter zone."

But most of the otters abandoned that remote colony and either made the long swim back home, or died trying. That result was foreseen by Dan Miller of Aptos, a retired California Fish and Game biologist and sea otter expert who sadly died in December. Miller predicted to me that in particular young males would not stay at San Nicolas Island. He was right. Out of the 140 relocated, only 11 remained and just a couple of dozen are there today.

The story was much different more than 300 years ago as many as 300,000 sea otters lived in near shore waters off coasts of Japan and Siberia, Alaska and along the western North American coast south to Baja California.

In the 1700s, sea otters were a prized target of fur hunters and otter numbers plummeted.

In the early 1900s their California sub-species, the southern sea otter, was thought to be extinct until a small group was discovered near Bixby Creek in Big Sur in 1938. Their population grew as they gained influential friends, including the Carmel-based Friends of the Sea Otter, as well as protection from state and federal law.

But their population has recently struggled. A three-year average of census counts is used to compensate for the variability that's inevitable when counting mobile animals and by that measure there are now 2,792 of them, mostly in an area that stretches from San Mateo to Santa Barbara counties.

There are many reasons why their population is small and vulnerable. Necropsies on dead otters have revealed diseases from a number of causes, including toxins from inland lakes. Another 22 percent of recovered carcasses had signs of fatal shark attacks. Expanding their range is just one more strategy to help get the population to where it could be. Reducing their exposure to natural toxins, predators and pollutants is also necessary to sustain growth in their numbers.

Southern sea otters can have a beneficial effect on kelp forests in southern California if a population takes hold there. They eat sea urchins, thereby limiting the damage they do to kelp mainly by eating away at their connection to the sea floor.

Expanding the allowable sea otter range will have two benefits for sea otters. First, they will not be as vulnerable to a catastrophic event such as an oil spill as they would be concentrated in a smaller area. Secondly, otter advocates will be able to work on improving conditions in near shore Southern California waters and give population growth a real chance.

Of course, these animals don't observe federal boundaries anyway. Several have been spotted off Santa Barbara County and Bernardo Alps, Research Associate with San Pedro's Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, told me he has seen a single otter twice in the port of Los Angeles in late 2011 and early 2012. Alps also said there was another sighting off San Diego and there are several otters in Santa Monica Bay and off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Their numbers can grow during the next several years, but not without our help.

Dan Haifley is executive director of O'Neill Sea Odyssey. He can be reached at dhaifley@oneillseaodyssey.org.

ON THE NET

Friends of the Sea Otter: www.seaotters.org
The Otter Project: www.otterproject.org