The lone southern sea otter continually surfaced at my bow, several times hugging clams against the thick fur of its belly. I glided along in my kayak, steadily keeping pace with the sleek-swimming marine mammal — one of many that can’t seem to stay north of Point Conception.

Apparently the 2,700 or so southern sea otters within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary didn’t receive the memo that they were forbidden to travel into Southern California between Point Conception and the Mexican border, known as the no-otter zone to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and commercial fishermen.

The no-otter zone began in 1987, during President Ronald Reagan’s administration and under the authority of the Endangered Species Act. The Fish & Wildlife Service initiated the program to establish an experimental population of otters transplanted to distant San Nicolas Island, which is under the control of the Navy. The FWS made a deal with urchin and abalone divers and oil and gas developers to keep otters out of Southern California.

About 140 otters from Half Moon Bay to Point Conception were transplanted to San Nicolas, but during the past 30 years, only about 35 remain. In 1993, the Fish & Wildlife Service suspended its management plan, acknowledging it couldn’t keep otters out of the no-otter zone.

Commercial fishermen were angered by the outcome and the potential impact the otters would have on sea urchins. Instead of admitting the management plan was a bust, the Fish & Wildlife Service is working on how otters and fishermen can coexist.

“Otters are coming down the coast independently,” said Greg Sanders, a senior marine biologist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. “You’ll see them in the next five years, and we need to create a healthy environment for otters.”

That will be easier said than done. Right now, otters are merely traveling into old territory, but if otters attempt to establish territories south of Point Conception, they’ll be more susceptible to boat traffic, netting, potential oil spills and certainly urban runoff.

Sanders said some otters have been seen just north of the Mexican border, but he believes that those otters were transplants from San Nicolas. He said otters on the move today may return to portions of the Channel Islands National Park.

“I think they will, but it will take time,” he said. “Who knows? San Miguel Island is the closest and has good habitat.”

The one thing that may thwart otters ranging south of Point Conception is the females. Once they get comfortable and establish their own territories, they like to stick around.

“Females like to stay put,” Sanders said. “The males travel but not too far. The females anchor the population.”

Noozhawk contributor and local freelance writer Chuck Graham is editor of Deep magazine.