The California Fish and Game Commission cleared the way Tuesday for federal authorities to begin capturing sea otters along the coast and relocating them to San Nicolas Island, 55 miles southwest of Santa Catalina Island.
The panel's 3-2 vote came despite vigorous protests registered over the last several months by commercial shell fishermen. It was the final authorization needed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to implement a plan to protect California sea otters from possible extinction should a major oil spill occur along the 220 miles of coast inhabited by the animals.
The California sea otter, hunted to near-extinction before the turn of the century, is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Marine biologists estimate that there are 1,650 of these teddy bear-like creatures living along the coast from Monterey to San Luis Obispo.
Connoisseurs of Shellfish
Sea otters have a voracious appetite for abalone, sea urchins and other shellfish. Commercial and sport fishermen opposed the plan, contending that the otters would decimate the fishing grounds around the federally owned San Nicolas Island.
"Shellfish are so much fodder for the otter . . . like seed for a pet bird," Steve Rebuck of San Luis Obispo said in an interview. Representing the California Ocean Resources Preservation, an umbrella group of commercial and sport divers and fishermen, Rebuck vowed continued opposition to the plan and said that legal action "is one option."
'Great Amount of Jeopardy'
State and federal marine biologists say the relocation is necessary because heavy tanker traffic in the sea lanes along the coast poses the threat of a major oil spill that could destroy the otter population there. Unlike other sea mammals, otters have no protective layers of fat and depend on their fur to keep them dry and warm. If their fur is fouled by oil, these animals quickly die of exposure, experts say.
"If you have a population of those low numbers in one location, as we do today, . . . there is a great amount of jeopardy to all the critters," said Rolf L. Wallenstrom, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Relocating a colony of otters to San Nicolas will increase the creatures' chances of survival, he testified in earlier hearings.
Tuesday's vote came during an unusual meeting conducted by a telephone conference call. Only one of the five commissioners was actually in Sacramento.
As part of the agreement to be signed, federal officials have pledged not to allow the relocated otters to stray outside the island's waters. Nor will the otters living along the coast be allowed to expand their range south past Point Conception, at the northern end of the Santa Barbara Channel, according to Wilbur (Skip) Ladd, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Netting of the first of 70 otters to be transported to San Nicolas this year will begin within a few days, Ladd said. The captured otters will be held in Monterey until two dozen are in captivity; then they will be airlifted to the Navy's air strip on the island.
From the island, the caged otters will be taken a hundred yards off shore and released in large holding pens until they become adjusted to their new location, Ladd explained. The operation is expected to cost up to $1 million a year, including follow-up scientific studies and continued efforts to protect the relocated animals. A total of 250 otters will be relocated, he said.
After the vote, Carol Fulton, speaking for Friends of the Sea Otter, said, "This is a banner day for the sea otter. Now they can be restored to San Nicolas Island (where they once thrived). . . . If successful, this translocation will give the otter a fighting chance to survive."