They Just Don't Listen
Otters refuse to abide by the terms of their recovery plan. So it's back to square one.
Thursday, August 24, 2000
Once again, fishermen and marine life protection groups are arguing about the sea otter. In 1990 they quarreled over a state law forbidding fishermen to use nets in waters shallower than 180 feet--a measure meant to combat the problem of otter entanglement in nets. This time it''s whether the otters are going to be allowed to wander in and out of what the Fish and Wildlife Service once declared an "otter-free zone."
On August 17, the Fish and Wildlife Service held afternoon and evening public meetings at the Monterey Conference Center on the drafting of a new plan for managing the sea otter. Greg Sanders, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, led the afternoon meeting, which was attended almost entirely by marine life protection groups such as Friends of the Sea Otter, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. All those groups support Fish and Wildlife''s position, which is that continuing the current recovery plan would endanger the sea otter.
Actually called the southern sea otter, the species was almost hunted to extinction by the end of the 19th century, and only through protection has a population once estimated at 14,000 recovered to its current population of 2,317. It''s been listed by Fish and Wildlife as "threatened" since 1977.
In 1982, as part of the sea otter recovery plan, Fish and Wildlife created a sea otter-free management zone from Point Conception to the Mexican border. Within this zone, only San Nicolas, an otter-perfect Channel Island, was allowed to have sea otters. This plan was partly an unofficial deal with fishermen in Southern California to keep some commercial fishing ground free of otters and partly a way to create a colony of otters as a way of facilitating a stable population. Between 1987 and 1990, 140 sea otters were translocated to San Nicolas by the sea otter recovery team. Another 24 were flown out of the management zone to Santa Cruz County.
This continued until 1993, when Fish and Wildlife determined that the plan had failed. First, the population at San Nicolas Island was dwindling (it''s now 20 probably non-original animals; the stable population target for San Nicolas is 150 animals). According to Sanders, "lots of animals swam away right away, some died, and for about 70 animals, we don''t know what happened."
Capturing the sea otters also proved to be extremely difficult. And, as might have been foreseen, keeping otters out of the 5,200 square mile management zone was impossible. As Sanders succinctly puts it, "the affinity to the area they came from was stronger than we anticipated."
So it would seem that the path of least resistance would be to let the otters remain in their chosen habitat. Indeed, out of Fish and Wildlife''s five listed alternatives, most of the speakers at the afternoon meeting backed Alternative III, which calls for leaving the otters in the management zone and on San Nicolas Island alone. For one thing, they''re worried that trying to force the otters to cluster together could threaten the species in the event of an oil spill.
However, the existing plan cannot be so easily abandoned. Winning the right to establish the management zone and colony on San Nicolas was tantamount to earning the responsibility of keeping them up. Now that Fish and Wildlife has halted the translocation plan, suits by the Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, Inc., California Abalone Association, Inc., and two individuals are being brought against Bruce Babbit and the Department of the Interior because of the 150-200 sea otters now in the management zone.
So, how does the drafting of a new plan affect the Peninsula? According to Jim Curland, Science Director for the Friends of the Sea Otter, "Sea otters are a major part of the ecosystem, and what happens down south has ramifications on the whole population." While a possible direct biological effect of a new plan could be that sea otters translocated out of the otter-free zone and up to Santa Cruz County could swim down the coast to our area, the important issue is really that what happens to any southern sea otter effects all otters, including the 150-250 otters that live in Monterey Bay, depending on the season.
In any case, a solution is years away. Maybe in that amount of time Fish and Wildlife will have found a way to make everyone happy. Chris Arcoleo, who owns and operates Chris'' Fishing Trips, captures the problem perfectly: "You love the guys, they''re beautiful, but you don''t want to see them harm anyone''s livelihood. What you should do with them, I don''t know."
The Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to solicit the public''s opinion, until September 29, 2000. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org