Balance sought in sea otter conflict
Lacking blubber, sea otters consume 25 percent or more of their body weight in shellfish meat daily
March 24, 1999
Web posted at: 3:15 PM EST
What's more important to the coastal ecosystem, sea otters or shellfish? And is it possible for them both to coexist? These are the questions California marine officials are currently debating.
Because sea otters have the capacity to practically decimate shellfish populations, California fishing groups are concerned that the shellfish industry, worth more than $100 million, may be at risk from these fuzzy creatures. They are appealing to the California Fish and Game Commission and state to take an active role in finding a solution to the mushrooming conflict between shellfish resources, fisheries and sea otters.
The 2,000 sea otters living in California, are listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. In 1986, a zonal management system that designated sea otter protection zones and otter-free shellfishing areas was established by Congress. It was suggestion by the Marine Mammal Commission and followed more than 20 years of controversy and debate. The legislation intended both to foster California sea otter recovery and protect valuable southern California shellfish resources from otter predation.
However, fishermen this month have reported at many as 200 sea otters in the "no-otter zone" south of Point Conception in southern California.
Moving into new areas, otters quickly reduce exposed populations of their preferred prey (sea urchins, abalone, crabs and clams), leaving the shells as evidence of their activity. Lacking blubber, sea otters consume 25 percent or more of their body weight in shellfish meat daily.
In March 1998, for example, a colony of about 150 otters emigrated into the no-otter zone south of Point Conception in southern California and swiftly decimated shellfish resources in Little Cojo Bay, a productive area that has sustained shellfish fisheries for many decades, according to the Sea Urchin Harvesters Association of California.
Scientists in California and Alaska have documented the drastic decline of harvestable shellfish in areas that sea otters have re-colonized, observing individual otters eating as many as 12 crabs and 80 clams in one day. "Our studies have shown that sea otters and most shellfish fisheries cannot coexist," said Fred Wendell, a sea otter biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game.
PL 99-625 authorized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to translocate a reserve colony of sea otters to San Nicolas Island in southern California and, at the same time, directed the service to remove all otters found in the no-otter zone south of Point Conception using all feasible non-lethal means.
In addition, in a memorandum of understanding with the state of California, the USFWS promised to begin developing a long-term zonal management plan, according to Sea Urchin Harvesters Association.
The service disbanded its sea otter capture-relocation team in 1993, however, and has made no effort to comply with Congressional law, nor its promise to address long-term sea otter management, according to fishing organizations.
After learning about the otters' emigration into southern California last year, the service embarked on a series of public meetings and private deliberations; FWS is now considering declaring the translocation and zonal management program a failure. Fishermen argue that FWS is orchestrating the program's failure by ignoring the law and its own promises.
Citing zonal management as the only legal means to control the sea
otter expansion, Peter Halmay of Sea Urchin Harvesters Association said, "You have to imagine future sea otter
population growth without zonal management and where it will lead. The
outcome is clear: either we learn how to manage marine mammals or they
will usurp public access to seafood resources."
"Without management, shellfish fishing will disappear from our coastal communities, and consumers will be denied the ability to enjoy these resources," he said.
A representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been invited by the Fish and Game Commission to address the sea otter issue at the commission meeting in Visalia April 2.
For more information, contact Vern Goehring, SUHAC, (916)568-7847.
Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved
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