updated 10/6/2005 9:44:00 AM ET 2005-10-06T13:44:00

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday proposed allowing sea otters back into Southern California waters, saying that scrapping the current “no-otter zone” would boost recovery efforts for the threatened species.

The agency also recommended ending an 18-year-old program that sent more than 100 sea otters from the Central Coast to San Nicolas Island, one of the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast, in an unsuccessful attempt to establish a new population.

Wildlife advocates applauded the proposal by Fish and Wildlife, which will seek public comment until Jan. 5.

The Sea Urchin Harvesters Association, an industry group that wants to limit the number of sea otters in Southern California waters, did not return a call seeking comment. Sea urchins are a favorite food of otters.

Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group, recently released a report saying that allowing otters back into their historical habitat in Southern California would help the species recover and attract tourists eager to see the iconic marine mammals.

The California sea otter once populated the state’s entire coast, but they were hunted for their pelts and were nearly extinct by the early 20th century. Now numbering about 2,700, the species is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The no-otter zone arose out of the San Nicolas Island relocation program. Designed to appease fishermen worried that the voracious animals would disrupt their industry, it targeted sea otters migrating south of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County. Otters that strayed south of the boundary were captured and sent back north.

Fish and Wildlife moved about 140 sea otters to San Nicolas Island, hoping to establish a colony outside the main population that lives between Point Conception to Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco. They thought a second group would ensure the species’ survival if a natural or human-caused catastrophe, such as an oil spill, decimated the coastal population.

But the program didn’t work. Most of the otters swam back to the coast and only about 30 otters remain around the island today.

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