With resplendent, thick fur, otters were voraciously hunted until not a single one could be seen along the California coast. The southern sea otter was believed to be extinct, and otters in Alaskan waters were similarly imperiled. Surprisingly, a small raft of otters was found to have survived off the coast of California's Big Sur. This southern population was sluggishly yet steadily expanding, and its future looked promising until otters started getting entangled in gillnets and drowning.

To end bycatch kill, the Center teamed up with the Turtle Island Restoration Network and filed a notice of intent to sue the California Department of Fish and Game for allowing the killing of sea otters. In 2000, the agency shut down a set-gillnet fishery and effectively banned gillnet fishing in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The campaign to protect the northern sea otter has taken a more persistent effort. Since we filed a citizen petition to list the southwest Alaska distinct population segment as endangered, we've kept continuous legal pressure on the government. In 2005, this dwindling population was finally listed as threatened. Our follow-up suit the next year resulted in a court-approved settlement forcing designation of critical habitat — which was proposed in December 2008, to the tune of about 3.7 million acres. In October 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 5,855 square miles.