Otters seen as boon to economy

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Posted by on September 28, 2005 at 22:58:32:

Santa Barbara County: Study explores possibilities of expanding population

More otters, more money.

That's the crux of a study by Defenders of Wildlife, a wildlife and habitat advocacy group that estimates that an increased southern sea otter population could generate more than $100 million in economic benefits.

The study, by John Loomis of Colorado State University's Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, focuses on the impact of an increased otter population as well as expanding the southern sea otter population into Southern California.

The southern sea otter is also known as the California sea otter.

The report, released today, predicts that increased otter populations could boost tourism in Santa Barbara County in the next decade and extend some of those benefits into Ventura County and even more of California in subsequent decades. It also projects that more otters along the California coast could translate to 1,400 to 8,400 new tourism-related jobs, with economic benefits of $7.4 million annually in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Around Monterey, otters drive everything from souvenir choices to kayaking rentals and charter boat routes, said the study. It cites exit surveys by the Monterey Bay Aquarium that rate the sea otter exhibit as the most enjoyed exhibit, and sea otter merchandise more than 20 percent of gift and bookstore sales at the aquarium.

"The economic and ecological benefits of expanding sea otter populations are substantial and provide a compelling justification for ending the zonal management program and allowing sea otters to expand their range naturally," Loomis wrote.

The report comes as the federal agency in charge of managing the otter population, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, prepares to readdress the issue of its "no-otter" management zone and an otter colony the agency attempted to create to help the southern sea otters' population.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's current otter management policy dates back to 1982, when it launched a recovery plan for the southern sea otter, a threatened species since 1977 under the Endangered Species Act, said Greg Sanders, Southern Sea Otter Recovery Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura.

The program was designed to balance the needs of shellfish fishermen with efforts to minimize the risks to the otter population in the event of an oil spill or disease, establishing a "no-otter" management zone from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border and a plan to remove otters from that zone by nonlethal means, he said.

It also tried to establish a translocation zone, a new otter colony off San Nicolas Island near Santa Barbara, which Sanders admits hasn't worked.

In the three years management efforts were actively employed, 1987 to 1990, 140 sea otters were relocated, said Sanders. Of those, most swam back into the management zone or new territory and at least three died on the island. By 1993, only 13 otters remained on San Nicolas Island.

Today, that island colony numbers about 30, less than half of the project's goal of 70.

"It's a long ways away from what we wanted," said Sanders. "Essentially, the otters were leaving the island as soon as we were putting them there."

While the federal law establishing the management and translocation zones remains on the books, Sanders said the agency quit moving otters to San Nicolas Island after 1990, and from the management zone in 1993.

"We looked at it and said, 'If we have to move all these animals, we're going to be disrupting all the normal habits of the species, which is contrary to what we're trying to do,'" he said.

In recent years, traveling groups of male otters have shown up near Point Conception seasonally, behavior that Sanders said "is a natural prelude to expansion of the species."

The federal agency has prepared a draft supplemental environmental impact statement exploring the possible alternatives, which will be released with the next few weeks for public input, Sanders said.

Among the possibilities are keeping the program intact, reducing the size of the management zone or terminating the program altogether.

Currently, there are an estimated 2,700 southern sea otters, which at their peak had a population of about 16,000 before overhunting drove them to the brink of extinction.

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