Our History

A Little History

The story on the re-discovery of California’s sea otter is well-documented. In 1938 a group of otters were spotted near Bixby Bridge along the Big Sur coast. This sighting confirmed that California’s otter was, indeed, still in existence.

margaret Our History

Co-Founder Margaret Owings

That was 76 years ago. For more than half of that time Friends of the Sea Otter (FSO) has worked to protect the sea otter and its habitat from a wide range of threats. And it is in large part due to FSO’s efforts that the California (southern) sea otter population has grown.

In 1968 when Margaret Owings, a well respected conservationist, and Dr. Jim Mattison, an avid outdoorsman, founded FSO, the southern sea otter population numbered about 650. Since that time, the population has grown in number and range and includes the current 3-year average (population index) of slightly less than 3,000 sea otters along the central California coastline.

When FSO first began, it was operated solely on a volunteer basis; many times meetings were held at Owings’ home and it was through her sheer force of will that the organization continued.

She helped establish environmental policy to benefit the otter; she spoke to legislators both in Sacramento and Washington D.C.; and she used her insight and knowledge to rally scientists, conservationists, educators, and friends to embrace FSO’s mission.

Mattison marched along with her at every step, albeit with a different focus. He utilized his considerable medical knowledge to help in the biological research of otters; and he turned his scuba diving hobby into a treasure trove of pictures, information, and data – all about otters – for FSO. He helped develop a curriculum for teachers, produced a film about otters, and was instrumental in establishing FSO as an otter and otter habitat resource organization.

The success of FSO is well-known in the environmental community. As the oldest advocacy organization for sea otters in the world, FSO has become a voice to be reckoned with in the fight to protect our marine communities.

In 1993, FSO reassessed its focus and changed its mission statement to include not just protection of the southern sea otter, but sea otters throughout their north Pacific range, and all sea otter habitat.

In 2006, FSO was forced to refocus as the burden of a full staff, office & retail store became more than the organization could bear.  FSO returned to a largely volunteer effort through 2007, and had refocused it’s time and energy to the advocacy of sea otters at the state and federal levels.

Currently, Friends of the Sea Otter (FSO) has more than 5,000 members and supporters world-wide. As the nucleus of the organization, our members and supporters enable us to accomplish the many programs and activities necessary to protect the sea otter and its habitat. Through their membership dues and contributions we are one step closer to ensuring that sea otters throughout their range never face the the threat of extinction again. 


FSO has worked over the last 10 years towards securing the passage of the Southern Sea Otter Research and Recovery ActFSO has played a leadership role in revising the Southern Sea Otter Research and Recovery Act. Congressman Sam Farr introduced revised legislation early in the 111th Congress. Various drafts of the legislation have been developed over the years with Committee staff by a broad coalition of stakeholders and has been widely supported.  FSO, alongside multiple other sea otter advocacy groups signed onto a letter of support of the bill.  Unfortunately, current progress on the passage of this bill is at a stand still under the 113th Congress.  It is possible that one day this legislation will pass that will provide for research and conservation funding for sea otters in California.

In 2009, FSO provided Comments on the Proposed Critical Habitat Designation for the Northern Sea Otterdrafted in collaboration with other stakeholders–The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has proposed an area for critical habitat for the Northern sea otter.  FSO worked with its environmental and research partners to provide comments on the proposed designation and tracked its progress until a final determination was made.

In 2011, FSO provided Comments on the Northern Sea Otter Recovery PlanFSO worked with its environmental and research partners to provide comments on the proposed recovery plan.

From 2012 to the present, FSO continues to battle the forces that want to retain the failed “No Otter Zone”.  We will continue to fight this effort until that impediment to sea otter recovery is eliminated.

Tracking Any Legislative Action on the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.–The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are the two preeminent pieces of legislation to conserve, protect, and recover sea otters.

Under the Bush Administration, regulations undermining the ESA were adopted. It is likely that in the future Congresses, actions will be taken to restore the protections of the ESA. Congress may also take steps to reauthorize both Acts. If that is the case, FSO must work to ensure that current provisions that protect sea otters are preserved and strengthened.