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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

Photo by Joan Tisdale

What has become of Friends of the Sea Otter?

Sea Otter Savvy often gets inquiries about the present status of the iconic conservation nonprofit organization Friends of the Sea Otter. Founded in 1968, this advocacy group dedicated efforts over half a century to the protection and conservation of sea otters and gave them a voice at a time in their recovery that they needed it most. In 2020, Friends of the Sea Otter closed its doors entrusting its legacy and goals to Defenders of Wildlife.  Friends of the Sea Otter was the first to actively inspire the public at large about the sea otters’ unique behavior and habitat and to take action to fully recover a remarkable and vulnerable species. 


By Cassie Pais (former staff of Friends of the Sea Otter) and Gena Bentall

margaret owings 300FSO founder, Margaret OwingFriends of the Sea Otter (FSO) was founded by Margaret Owings, a well-respected conservationist, and Dr. Jim Mattison, an avid outdoorsman, in 1968. Mrs. Owings was instrumental in establishing environmental policy to benefit the sea otter. She spoke to legislators in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. and she rallied scientists, conservationists, educators, and friends to embrace FSO’s mission. Meanwhile, Dr. Mattison utilized his considerable medical knowledge to help in the biological research of otters. He turned his scuba diving hobby into a treasure trove of sea otter pictures, information, and data, and 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. Together, Mrs. Owings and Dr. Mattison transformed FSO from a small, grassroots effort to one of the most well-known and respected sea otter advocacy organizations in the world.

In the decades following inception, FSO was instrumental in securing protections for the sea otter that have allowed for significant population growth. When FSO was founded in 1968, the population size of the southern sea otter was only about 650. FSO and partner organizations fought to restore the sea otters' habitat and restrict hunting, exploitative fishing and shellfishing practices, and other forms of disturbance that hinder population growth. Due, in part, to their efforts, the southern sea otter population has significantly increased in number to the roughly 3000 otters living in California today!

FSO’s major accomplishments include:

  • Testifying in Washington, D.C. during the enactment and subsequent reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protections Act, and played a major role in the formulation of these laws. FSO also contributed to the listing of the southern sea otter as a “threatened species.”
  • Playing a pivotal role in achieving state bans on gill netting within the shallow waters of the sea otter range.
  • Reducing the oil spill risk to the southern sea otter population and its coastal environment.
  • Collaborating with partner groups for nearly 25 years to secure the end to the No-Otter Zone and the translocation program, which was eliminated officially in January 2013, and intervening as a defendant against a lawsuit by the fishing industry seeking to reinstate zonal management.
  • Working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and partner groups to promote the California Sea Otter Fund, the tax check off that appears on California state income tax 540 forms.
  • Supporting scientific research on important issues related to sea otter conservation.
  • Serving a key role in developing the sea otter recovery plan and helping achieve its recommended actions.

FSO remained a leading voice in sea otter advocacy until merging with long-time partner Defenders of Wildlife in 2020. While the loss of the iconic Friends of the Sea Otter name and logo is bittersweet, transfering the mission of the protection and recovery of the sea otter and its coastal ecosystem to a national organization promises to strengthen efforts and broaden engagement. Sea Otter Savvy has taken up much of the resposibility for outreach to local communities and beyond. Together Sea Otter Savvy and Defenders of Wildlife aspire to live up to the legacy established by Margaret Owings in 1968.

Read more about the 2020 transition and current sea otter advocacy at Defenders of Wildlife.

Photo by Gena Bentall