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FSO Continues to Fight for the Otter’s Right to Expand

September 7, 2010

In recent decades, Friends of the Sea Otter has been adamant about protecting the population of sea otters at San Nicholas Island and providing them with the freedom to move and expand in the waters of Southern California. Currently a Fishery Management Zone surrounds San Nicholas Island, where a robust population of sea otters is only just now becoming established after the Fish and Wild Service transported them there from their mother range on the central coast more than 20 years ago. The Management Zone is effectively a no-otter zone where otters from San Nicholas Island and the mother range are captured and removed if they happen to accidentally swim through it. The no-otter zone covers most of the Southern Californian coast, from Point Conception to the Mexican border, with the exception of the kelp forests around San Nicholas Island. The problem this no-otter zone creates for the expansion of sea otters has been the focus of a dialogue between the Friends of the Sea Otter and its partners, the US Fish and Wild Service, and the Navy.

On Tuesday, July 13th, representatives from Friends of the Sea Otter, on its members’ behalf, and its partners were welcomed to a tour of the naval facilities of San Clemente and San Nicholas Islands off the coast of Los Angeles, California. The goal of the tour was to 1.) survey the impact of naval operations on the coastal habitats of the islands, and 2.) continue the conversation about the Translocation Plan and the no-otter zone. San Clemente Island, though not supporting a sea otter population presently, has potential sea otter habitat should the otters at San Nicholas Island be allowed into the no-otter zone.

Though the islands play an important strategic role in the Navy’s goal of national security, both are rich in wildlife and natural resources, which the Navy takes seriously. Extensive natural resource programs on both islands focus on protecting the environment from Navy operations while working to restore habitats and species that were damaged in the past. The natural resource conservation program on San Nicholas Island in particular is sensitive to marine mammals of all kinds and has changed whole policies to accommodate different species. In one case, a large dock and crane were even assembled to unload supplies from ships and thus bypass a beach that is important to elephant seals and sea lions. Similarly, a program to monitor the sea otters that inhabit the island’s extensive kelp forests keeps track of any reactions the otters may have to Navy operations and exercises. Because of these conservation programs, Navy operations seem to pose no threat to the current sea otter population or to the prospective population growth around the island.

The question remains, though, on how to proceed with ending the no-otter zone surrounding San Nicholas Island and allow the sea otters there and in the mother range the opportunity to expand. Friends of the Sea Otter will continue to work for its members to end this no-otter zone and finally allow sea otters the right to swim where they please and expand their dangerously narrow range. Only when sea otters are allowed this freedom will the species truly have the opportunity it deserves to expand and thrive.

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