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California and the West

Otters Stir Up a Maelstrom of Clashing Views

Wildlife: Migration into Southern California sparks demands for their removal from shell fishers. But U.S. officials say that could break protection law.


SANTA BARBARA — For the first time in decades, sea otters are pressing hard into Southern California, attempting to recolonize a sliver of coastline that their ancestors roamed before being hunted to the brink of extinction.

But with their arrival at Cojo Bay, just east of Point Conception, these migrants have swum smack into a bitter debate about fishing rights and wildlife protection along the California coast.

Their presence puts them in direct conflict with commercial shell fishers and a federal law banning sea otters from the Mexico border to Point Conception.

The only exception was a small colony of sea otters set up on San Nicolas Island off the Ventura County coast about a decade ago. That experiment, fishers and government officials agree, has been an abject failure.

Scientists are troubled too. They want more otters, but are concerned that the animals are expanding into new territory at a time when their total numbers along the California coast are declining.

Diseases are ravaging otters on an unprecedented scale, scientists say, raising questions about their overall health and pollution of their coastal habitat.

Taken together, those developments are forcing stakeholders in the debate to conclude that it may be time for an overhaul of otter management programs along the California coast.

Shell fishers--who compete with otters for prized sea urchins, lobsters and crabs--consider the animals ravenous rivals and a threat to their economic survival.

If otters establish a beachhead near Santa Barbara, they say, it will only be a matter of time before they advance along the rest of the Southern California coast.

Each day, a 50-pound sea otter eats an average of 17 pounds of crabs, turban snails, abalone and nearly anything else that wiggles on the ocean bottom.

"The public only sees them on the surface floating, and they look like teddy bears, but they eat like elephants and they have a big impact on other life forms," said Steve Rebuck, an abalone diver and consultant to the California Abalone Assn.

Fishers demand that federal wildlife authorities honor their legal commitment to remove the animals--24 otters lingered at Cojo Bay through summer--immediately. They say otters have no business moving so far south, and federal law supports that position.

Under a compromise to balance otter recovery with fishing rights, Congress in 1986 passed a law that forbids sea otters in Southern California, save for the San Nicolas colony.

Otters were allowed to roam unfettered north of Point Conception; shell fishers got exclusive rights to the waters to the south. Any sea otters found in the "management zone" were to be immediately captured and removed, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the federal agency has resisted eviction of the interlopers from Cojo Bay. Federal biologists insist that relocating them would harm the species, and that would conflict with another federal law, the Endangered Species Act. In 1977, southern sea otters, found off the California coast, were designated a species threatened with extinction.

Carl Benz, a federal biologist in Ventura, estimates that about two of every 30 otters would perish during relocation, unacceptably high mortality for a protected species. Besides, even if the otters were moved to the Morro Bay area, from which they are believed to have migrated, many would probably swim back to Cojo Bay, Benz said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held public meetings last month in Santa Barbara and Monterey seeking advice on how to proceed. Raucous crowds of as many as 100 fishers attended.

"It's a Catch-22 situation. There are no easy answers," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley). "We're very sensitive to the natural environment, but we're sensitive to the family that depends on fishing too."

Losing a Deadly Duel With Nature

At the moment, however, conflict with humans is the least of the sea otters' problems. The species is caught in a deadly duel with nature. The otters are losing.

Odd foraging habits, new patterns of disease and toxic pollution raise questions about the health of the coastal environment.

Scientists wonder if the otters are seeking new territory as part of a normal growth spurt or if they are fleeing unhealthy environments.

In the last three years, the number of sea otters along the California coast fell 11%, to 2,114. It is the most significant die-off since detailed counts began in 1982, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The offshore otter population established on San Nicolas Island is faring even worse. As part of the compromise that banned sea otters from Southern California, 139 animals were transplanted from the mainland coast to the island between 1987 and 1990 to establish a colony to ensure that otters could survive a major oil spill.

Yet just 16 otters remain at the island. About half swam back to Monterey, some died of various causes and the rest are unaccounted for. The program is widely criticized as a failure.

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