SAN FRANCISCO – 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 the Fish and Wildlife Service, which will seek public comment until Jan. 5 and hold hearings in Santa Barbara and Monterey. 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. “Many of the sea otters we moved to San Nicolas Island had a plan of their own,” said Steve Thompson, manager of the Fish and Wild Service’s California-Nevada operations office. “We believe that continuing the translocation program will not promote recovery of the species.” Rep. Sam Farr, D-Salinas, said terminating the no-otter zone and relocation program would help recovery efforts and generate tourism. “To ensure a sustainable sea otter population in the future, we need to allow sea otters to expand their range without forcing them to live in one spot or another,” Farr said. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! “Bringing sea otters back to Southern California will not only help put sea otters firmly on the road to recovery, it will also benefit our coastal communities,” said Jim Curland, a marine coastal associate for the group. The California sea otter once populated the state’s entire coastline, but they were hunted for their pelts during the 18th and 19th centuries and were nearly extinct by the early 20th century. Now numbering about 2,700, the species is listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The no-otter zone arose out of the San Nicolas Island relocation program wildlife officials began in 1987. Designed to appease fishermen worried that the voracious animals would disrupt their industry, it essentially banned sea otters from 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 and 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.