California fishermen resist plans for second sea otter colony. They worry that otters could expand food forays into commercial areas

Female No. 220 lolls in a tangle of kelp, head thrown back and front paws up in the air. The sea otter, marked with an orange and chartreuse tag, seems oblivious to the boats criss-crossing her harbor home. She musters little more than a bored glance for a kayaker who glides within a few hundred feet.

But this apparent harmony between man and animal belies the storm that is brewing over the future of the California sea otter.

The controversy pits conservationists against fishing interests and focuses on a plan to establish a new sea otter colony off the coast of southern California.

Once hunted nearly to extinction, the otters have staged a dramatic comeback in recent years.

They now number more than 1,600 and range along a 220-mile stretch of central California coast - from Point Ano Nuevo in the north to the mouth of the Santa Maria River in the south.

Sea otters are extremely susceptible to oil spills, and conservationists want to create a second colony of otters on San Nicolas Island, so that in case of a spill, at least one group would survive.

But it's the otters' hefty appetite, however, which has made them a focus of controversy.

Sea otters gobble as much as 25 percent of their body weight each day in clams, sea urchins, abalone, and other invertebrates. As a result, fishermen and divers, particularly those in the abalone business, see them as pesky competitors. They have vowed to fight any effort to expand the range.

Conservationists insist that a second colony is crucial to the long-term survival of the seagoing mammals, which look like a cross between a teddy bear and a beaver.

Otters could be devastated by a major oil spill. Indeed, it was such a threat that was cited in 1977, when the California sea otter was listed as a ``threatened'' species under the Endangered Species Act.

The warm-blooded animals depend on their thick, waterproof coat to resist the cold temperatures of the Pacific. Once soiled with oil, an otter's coat would no longer protect it, and the animal would quickly die of exposure. Since it's extremely difficult to catch sea otters - divers usually have to sneak up on them from below with nets - a large-scale rescue effort would be virtually impossible.

``With increased oil exploration and shipping along the coast, there's a reasonably good chance we'll have an oil spill here,'' says Dr. Galen Rathbun, a research biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. ``So the idea is to establish a second population that will ensure a surviving gene pool.''

Under the plan, crafted by the Fish and Wildlife Service, some 70 sea otters would be taken to San Nicolas Island, an uninhabited speck off the coast of Santa Barbara. These animals would become the core of a breeding population that could eventually grow to several hundred.

``San Nicolas is sea otter heaven,'' says Carol Fulton, executive director of Friends of the Sea Otter, a conservation group pushing the plan. ``There's a wonderful food supply, great kelp beds, and large populations of other sea mammals.''

Ms. Fulton says the isolated nature of the island, which is used by the Navy for missile tracking, will make it easier to monitor and protect the new colony. It also helps politically, since the island has a relatively small commercial fishing industry working the surrounding waters.

Critics worry that the otters might slip away from the island and invade other parts of the coast. Otters once ranged as far south as Baja, Calif. And even officials admit that there is no guarantee that the otters will stay put.

To reassure the fishermen, the $1 million-a-year project includes provisions for catching otters that stray too far from the island.

The plan calls for an ``otter-free zone'' around the colony - an area in which sea otters would not be allowed to forage.

And if the otters can't be kept near the island, the plan would be abandoned entirely and the otters returned to the northern range.

Steven Rebuck, a spokesman for a group of commercial abalone divers, calls the plan unrealistic. He doubts that the otters can be contained near the island. And once they wander off, he says, they'll be nearly impossible to round up.

``This thing was written by a group of bureaucrats who have very little familiarity with the conditions out on the open sea,'' he says.

Still, the plan has been endorsed by the California Coastal Commission, leaving only the state Fish and Game Commission to take action before it can proceed. A vote is scheduled by the commission on Aug. 18, and officials say the first otters could be plucked out of the water the ``next day, weather permitting.''

Opponents have threatened to go to court to try to stop the plan, if it is approved.

Timing is important. Experts say the move must be completed by mid-October to avoid bad weather.

Various research projects are planned, focusing on the special opportunities created by watching a new colony of otters establish itself. For example, researchers will study the impact the otters have on the supply of shellfish near San Nicolas. Such information could help settle the dispute over whether sea otters unreasonably deplete marine resources.

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