Otter relocation program dubbed a failure

February 10, 2010

Otters at Morro Bay

An attempt to draw a line in the ocean to separate sea otters from fisherman is not working because the otters have failed to cooperate, causing several different groups to fight over proposed changes to the 23-year-old policy. [ABC]

Fish and Game officials undertook a program to protect both otters and fishermen by separating the two through designating otter habitats. As part of the relocation program, officials would capture otters that had traveled into the “no otter zones,” and return them safely outside the zone.

The otter zone, designated in 1987, stretched from just south of San Francisco to just north of Santa Barbara at Point Conception. In addition, an island 62 miles off the shore of Los Angeles was chosen to contain an experimental otter colony.

Proponents of the plan promised to confine the otters to their allotted territories — a promise they were unable to keep, even though they spent an estimated $10,000 per otter as part of the relocation effort.

The Channel Island Colony attempt was a failure, with most of the otters refusing to follow the plan. Many died while trying to swim hundreds of miles back to their northward homelands.

In 1993, Fish and Game officials stopped returning stray otters and a few years later began looking at rewriting their policy. However, that plan has been stalled by the Navy’s concerns that extending the otters territory could harm their operations.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Defense Center has filed a law suit asking that the relocation policy be dubbed a failure and discontinued. The federal government is fighting the suit and divers have voiced their fears that the $10 million urchin industry could perish if the four-foot member of the weasel family continues to migrate out of their approved zones.

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Thanks for covering this important issue–just a quick note on some of the facts.

Although Fish and Game participated in early relocation efforts, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was in charge of the program–they are the responsible party.

The Environmental Defense Center and The Otter Project filed a lawsuit requesting that the policy ending the no otter zone–which has been started, but stalled for years–be finalized.

Recovering otters is as much about recovering healthy ecosystems that benefit us all (aesthetically AND economically) as it is individual otters.

We’ve learned a lot in recent years about conservation failures and successes–the original program was ironically intended to help the otters’ recovery. We are increasingly learning that we must manage for systematic sustainability in ecosystems. Maintaining an otter free zone impacts the rest of the ecosystem in which otters are a keystone species. Otters help maintain thriving kelp forests, which provide high levels of biodiversity and productivity. Without them, we end up with urchin barrens. These admittedly benefit urchin divers–but few others. There would be no urchin fishery had the otters not been wiped out in the first place. And who knows what might be there in its place?

Allison Ford, The Otter Project

The otters have decimated the Pismo clam also. What about their rights? It’s funny how the gov’t decides which animals have more importance over others. Take salmon for example. We have a sea lion explosion going on. They sit at the mouths of the rivers and pick off the spawning fish. The salmon populations are in trouble so why are we not protecting them by filling the heads of the sea lions with 3006 bullets? In addition, the salmon had provided jobs and recreation income for this state. What good is the sea lion at its huge numbers? I would be the first to sign up to start killing these furbags.

Indian shell middens (ancient garbage dumps) show when Pismo clams, sea otters and native americans lived together the clam shells in the middens were no larger than about 2″. At the turn of the last century, when we thought the sea otters were extinct the clams had no significant predators. They became obese!!! In the ’40s I got a family record size clam of 6 5/8″. During the ’50s the public became sloppy, not properly burying clams, and the population declined. Fish and Game reduced the size limit from 5″ to 4 1/2″.

In the early ’80s when the Sea Otters returned they had a food frenzy and ate most of the obese clams. Now most of the clam population is back down to its historical size of 2-2 1/2″. This is the “point of diminishing returns” for a sea otter. (It takes more energy to break the shell than food value they receive.) There are lots of small clams out there. Fish and Game just needs to change the law to allowing us to take the “first 20” we get, not matter what size they are. Just like when native americans were here. The number can be adjusted according to increasing or declining population. Fish and Game knows how to do population transections…

Ten grand to yank an otter out of his habitat and drown him? Another brilliant result from the enviro’s. How about we just make a bunch of otter hats and save the urchins or chop em up so the sharks won’t have to work so hard for their meal. Near shore rock fish and ablonies might come back as well.

Word at the time was that the Channel Island Colony became shark food.

Again we relearn the lesson that you can’t force a new balance in nature.

Just wait till the Elephant seals decide Avila is a nice haul out.