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Truce Halts Legal Fight Over Otters' Territory

Wildlife: Fishermen's suit is dropped for now as biologists study changes in relocation program.

July 31, 2001|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Commercial fishermen and federal biologists reached a truce Monday in a battle over the preservation of sea otters, whose remnant population still competes for sea urchins and other lucrative shellfish in Southern California waters.

A lawsuit filed by Santa Barbara fishermen was dismissed in U.S. District Court on Monday after all parties agreed to let federal biologists reevaluate their program to keep the otters out of Southern California.

Jeffrey Young, an attorney for Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, said his clients agreed to drop the suit after realizing that proposed rule changes were likely to make the lawsuit moot.

"We can refile it if we need to," Young said in a statement. Yet some of the changes being considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be acceptable to fishermen, especially one that would remove sea otters from the urchin-rich waters off San Nicolas Island.

A group of about 140 southern sea otters was relocated to San Nicolas Island, about 60 miles off Point Mugu, in the late 1980s. The idea was to set up a reserve population of the rare species, should an oil spill or other calamity wipe out the animals along the coast.

Urchin divers and other fishermen were furious at the new competitors in their prime fishing grounds. So federal biologists struck a deal with fishermen in 1987 to relocate any otters that strayed into Southern California waters.

Now fishermen claim that federal wildlife biologists have reneged on that agreement, failing to round up as many as 152 Central Coast otters that have been spotted south of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County.

The Fish and Wildlife Service announced earlier this year that it would not relocate any otters living in Southern California waters until it finishes a reevaluation of its relocation program, including its decade-old "no otter zone." The zone extends from Point Conception to the Mexican border and includes all of the Channel Islands except San Nicolas.

Biologists worry that relocating otters doesn't work, because they swim wherever they choose. Worse, they fear that the disruption pushes them closer to extinction.

They point out that of the 140 otters moved to San Nicolas Island, only about 20 remain.

So the Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering declaring its "translocation program" a failure, said Greg Sanders, the Fish and Wildlife Service's southern sea otter coordinator. A final decision is not expected until December 2002.

If the program is ruled a failure, the agency has an array of options, Sanders said. It could remove the no-otter zone and not worry about where otters roam. Or it could remove the otters from San Nicolas Island and make reasonable attempts to capture any other otters in Southern California waters.

Other possibilities include shrinking the size of the no-otter zone or limiting it to coastal waters south of Santa Barbara or to the waters surrounding the Channel Islands.

"Everyone agreed that we should let this run its course and then see where we are," said David Pinchas, an assistant U.S. attorney representing the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Harry Liquornick, an urchin diver and president of Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, could not be reached for comment.

But his attorney, Young, suggested that removing the animals from San Nicolas would be a popular option, given how the sea floor around the islands has been a fruitful harvest ground for commercial urchin divers.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, were delighted that the lawsuit was dismissed. "This will hopefully allow everyone to focus on how to help the species recover rather than focusing on the lawsuit," said Jim Curland of the Defenders of Wildlife.

His group, along with the Ocean Conservancy and Friends of the Sea Otter, intervened in the case to defend the federal government's decisions.

California sea otters, once thought wiped out by 19th century fur traders, have frustrated biologists by not expanding beyond a population of about 2,200 animals for the past decade.

Infectious diseases and parasites, including one linked to cat feces carried in polluted urban runoff, claim a startlingly high number of adult otters.

Otters also fall victim to shark attacks, and some get tangled in fishing nets and live-fish traps. A small portion--about 5%--of otter deaths are attributed to gunshots.

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