Feds decide otters can swim wherever they want

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Posted by on October 06, 2005 at 15:25:30:

Sea otters, the fuzzy, charismatic mascots of California's central coast, should be allowed to swim where they want, when they want, the Bush administration decided today.

In a move that could end 18 years of lawsuits and other battles between environmentalists and fishing interests, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intent to drop a relocation program that caught otters swimming south of an area near Santa Barbara and moved them north to Santa Cruz, Moss Landing and other areas.

The federal program was part of a 1987 political compromise designed to placate commercial fishing groups, who complained that as the population of otters expanded along the California coast, the furry mammals were devouring crab, urchins and lobsters sought by fishing crews in Southern California waters.

The relocation program was a failure, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged Wednesday. Many of the otters swam hundreds of miles back from relocated areas near Santa Cruz, Big Sur and Hearst Castle to waters off Santa Barbara. Others died or disappeared. The program had been suspended since 2001.

``This allows otters to expand their range naturally,'' said Greg Sanders, southern sea otter recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura. ``It's probably the only thing that could happen. Otters weren't staying where we put them.''

Environmentalists cheered the decision. They said it should help the sea otter, which remains an endangered species, as its population slowly climbs back.

``In order to achieve recovery for the southern sea otter in California, they need to start going back to their historic habitat,'' said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, in Sacramento. ``Their population is concentrated in a small area.''

That concentration makes them vulnerable to disease or an oil spill, she said.

Southern sea otters were hunted in the 1800s for their pelts, which are denser and softer than mink fur. By the 1930s, only a few dozen remained, off Big Sur. They were protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1977. This summer, biologists counted 2,735 otters. But they remain threatened because they suffer from high mortality rates, with up to 40 percent of dead otters examined being killed by parasitic diseases.

Currently, most sea otters are concentrated in the 150-mile area between Half Moon Bay and San Luis Obispo. Before 1800, there were up to 20,000 along the West Coast.

On Wednesday, fishing interests said it is too soon to say how they may respond.

``They eat 25 percent of their body weight a day -- and they are eating urchins, abalone and crabs,'' said Jeffrey Young, an attorney in Santa Barbara who represented fishing interests in a lawsuit five years ago over the otter issue. ``Otters clean the bottom. They pick everything clean. It has a devastating impact on the commercial shellfishing resource.''

Hoping to expand their range, the federal government set up a program in the 1980s to move otters from Monterey Bay and San Simeon to San Nicolas Island, 60 miles off Los Angeles. Fishing groups protested. In a compromise, the Reagan administration agreed to relocate any other otters that swam south of Point Conception, located between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, back north.

But problems began soon.

From 1987 to 1990, 140 sea otters were moved to San Nicolas Island. Many swam back to the coast. Others died. Today, only 32 remain on the island. Under Wednesday's action, they will remain there. Compounding troubles, by 1998, more than 100 otters had moved over the ``no-otter line'' at Point Conception as their population grew.

In 2000, the Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara sued the federal government, seeking to force it to catch and relocate the otters. The group dropped the suit, however, after agreeing to wait until the Fish and Wildlife Service completed studies and ruled. Wednesday was that day.

Wednesday's decision was the recommended action in a draft environmental impact statement. The Fish and Wildlife Service will hold public hearings this fall, and is expected to finalize the decision early next year.

``I don't think they had much choice,'' said Jim Estes, a nationally known otter researcher and adjunct professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz. ``We imagined it was like moving pieces of puzzle around. It's not that way. Otters have fidelities to places they know.''

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