CALIFORNIA – Sea otters off the coast of California have been forcefully relocated since 1986. However, this plan is in the process of being declared a failure. What will happen to the otters now? We think they should be allowed to live where they choose! – Global Animal

A sea otter floating on his back.

New York Times, Felicity Barringer

The idea of a 1986 law was to create a biological insurance policy to help California’s imperiled southern sea otter populations survive by getting some of them into a place out of harm’s way, and keeping the rest from a large area off the Santa Barbara coast that is a center of oil drilling.

A legal settlement that emerged this week is the latest step in a multiyear effort to declare that experiment a failure and let the otters decide for themselves where they should live.

The harm envisioned by the law was another oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast that could have wiped out the last small remnant of the sea otter populations of the 18th and 19th centuries. The thick pelts of the otter were in such demand in those days that they were hunted nearly to extinction; a small population was discovered off Big Sur in 1938 and slowly grew, in fits and starts, over the ensuing 72 years.

But there was a quid pro quo in the law that restricted the otters’ movements.

The law specified that a number of otters designated as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act would be transplanted from the seas off Santa Barbara to a new home on San Nicolas Island, a few miles offshore. But most of the rest of the Southern California Bight — the curving shore from Point Conception, west of Santa Barbara, to just south of the Mexican border south of San Diego — would be kept otter-free.

This meant that the service was called upon to remove any otters found in the area and take them to San Nicolas. And in that area, harming any otters by otherwise legal activities would not be deemed a violation of the act.

This was of immediate benefit to the oil industry, which has many offshore wells in the Santa Barbara area, and the Defense Department, which conducts military training on some islands in the Santa Barbara Channel. It was also a boon to the shellfish industry, since otters are voracious consumers of clams and crabs.

There are currently about 2,700 such animals off the California shores, from San Mateo County just south of San Francisco to Santa Barbara County, according to federal officials.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Interior Department, made sporadic efforts to declare the experiment a failure but has not completed all the requirements for doing so; in recent years that effort seemed to stall.

The new settlement requires them to make a final determination for the otters’ future by December 2012.