The Saga of the Southern Sea Otter

Otters Free to Roam!

Can you imagine looking out into the Santa Monica Bay and seeing a mother otter swimming with her pup? It will likely be a long time before otter populations make their way down the coast, but one day I would love to take my kids to the beach to see the otters and tell them with pride that we helped free the otter.

The southern sea otter is finally free to return to southern California!!!  After a long awaited decision, The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has decided to end the No-Otter Zone.  For the first time in 25 years otters can now enjoy the southern California coast without risking their lives.

The No-Otter Zone (formerly located from Point Conception to the Mexico border) was established in 1987 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). It was part of an experimental program to translocate sea otters to San Nicholas Island in order to create a reserve population in the event of a disaster (i.e. oil spill).  Within the No-Otter Zone otters were not protected and could be subject to abuse, capture, harassment or translocation to San Nicolas Island. The program failed as the sea otters did not establish a population as intended.  As of 1993 otters were no longer being picked up and moved north of Point Conception, but the “No-Otter Zone” remained until 2013 as an existing regulation.  Within the “No Otter Zone” the otters are at risk, with anecdotal evidence of California sea otters being shot, run over by boats, and harassed. Since the creation of the No-Otter Zone, sea otter populations have been unable to establish on San Nicolas Island rendering the translocation project a failure.

Historically, sea otters occupied the entire northern Pacific coastline in populations estimated between 150,000 and 300,000. In the 18th and 19th centuries sea otters were aggressively hunted by humans for their luxurious pelts. By the early 1900s sea otters were thought to be extinct from California. A small population was found off the coast of Big Sur in 1938 from which all of the southern sea otters today are descendants from. Since then, efforts have been made to help sea otter populations rebound; however, populations today (less than 3,000) are still a small fraction of historic populations.

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Learn More about the Southern Sea Otter and California’s Kelp Forest

Watch the Jean-Michel Cousteau video below to learn more about the California kelp forest food web.

Since 1938, otter populations have struggled to re-establish themselves in California as they are still threatened by pollution, oil spills, habitat loss, entanglement in fishing gear and hostility from humans.  Currently, sea otters are protected by both the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  This federal protection did not apply to sea otters found in the No-Otter Zone.

This map was provided by our friends at The Otter Project, and indicates the Southern Sea Otter’s 20th century range expansion, and the recently removed boundary of the No Otter Zone.

For more information, please contact our Marine Programs Manager, Brian Meux, or visit

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