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Rare marine mammals on Central Coast get Endangered Species Act protections extended

Lilian Carswell
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Southern Sea otters are found on parts of the Central and South Coasts, but their range once extended up and down the West Coast.

Southern Sea Otter population was once in the hundreds of thousands, but there are only about 3,000 now.

They are unique marine mammals which were once found up and down the Central and South Coasts. But for decades, they’ve teetered on the brink of extinction.

One of the things which makes the Southern Sea Otter so special is what led to them to be hunted by humans until they were all but gone.

"They have these beautiful, beautiful pelts...they're the only marine mammal that relies on their pelts...their keep them warm," said Emily Jeffers, who is an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. It's one of the environmental groups which has been fighting to protect the otters.

"Because sea otters have this beautiful pelt, they were hunted for their furs in the 17th and 18th centuries, and that's why their population took a nosedive," said Jeffers.

This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the small otters will remain on the Endangered Species List. In 2021, the agency had received a petition to remove them from the list, which would have cost them some of their protections.

While their population has grown during the last half century, Jeffers said it’s still only a fraction of what it was before they were ruthlessly hunted by fur traders.

"There are only about 3,000 Southern Sea Otters today, and that's down from maybe hundreds of thousands prior to them being killed for their pelts," said Jeffers.

She said even though they have made a comeback, going from a low of about 50 otters, they only now live in about 13% of their historical range.

Gena Bentall is the founder, and Senior Scientist for Sea Otter Savvy, a non-profit organization which studies, and works to protects the otters.

"Most people just think of sea otters as charismatic fuzzy little guys, but they're actually quite big... they can weight 40...60..80...even 100 pounds in the Northern Sea Otters," said Bentall. "They have over a million hairs per square inch, depending on the spot on their body."

Among the other characteristics of the otters is because they have the fur to keep them warm, they don’t have blubber. They can swim underwater for up to five minutes to look for food, and when they swim they can close their nostrils and ears. Instead of catching fish to eat with their teeth, they grab them with their paws. And, another sea otter fact: They are members of the weasel family.

Lilian Carswell
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Bentall says one of the biggest concerns about recovery efforts for the species is the California coastal colony only lives with a small portion of it original range.

"Historically, the range would have been contiguous...from Baja, through the Pacific rim of Washington, Canada, Alaska, all the way over to Russia, and the north coast of Japan," said Bentall. It's been broken up because of the extreme hunting. "Today, the Southern Sea Otter ranges from right around the elbow of California, Point Conception, to north of Santa Cruz."

Decades ago, there was an effort to reestablish the sea otters south of Point Conception, on San Nicholas Island. There’s still a small colony there, but it never expanded as hoped. There’s currently a proposal to try to help expand the population in Northern California, but that could still be a decade away.

The worry is that with their current limited range, a disaster like an oil spill could wipe out the entire population.

There are a number of other concerns, some fed by climate change. It could impact their food, like urchins and abalone. And, the loss of kelp beds could make it easier for sharks to find, and eat the small mammals.

Fish and Game officials say while the sea otters have made strides towards recovery, continued protections are needed.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.