Saving the `teddy bears' of the sea. Otters off California coast get new home far from oil-spill hazards

The lot of the sea otter - known to some people as ``floating teddy bears'' and to scientists as Enhydra lutris - has not been easy. Their population off the California coast has diminished from more than 18,000 in 1800 to 1,724 in 1988. They were brought to the brink of extinction by Russian, Spanish, and Yankee fur hunters. It appeared that they had been wiped out until 1938, when a Big Sur rancher spotted several small, furry animals floating on their backs - the usual sea otter position - off the mouth of Bixby Creek, 15 miles south of Monterey.

Then, as these otters slowly multiplied and extended their territory in search of food, they came at odds with the commercial shellfish industry. Sea otters eat clams, abalone, lobster, crabs, and sea urchins.

Now that they are getting a precarious pawhold on the road to recovery, there is a new and insidious threat in the very heart of their range: oil.

The sea otter is unique among marine mammals in that it has no insulating layer of blubber. What keeps it warm in the 50-degree waters is that same fur that excites coat manufacturers. The fur is long and thick, and the otter must keep it fluffy and full of air bubbles to keep the water from coming in direct contact with its skin. This keeps the animal warm.

An oil spill that could mat its fur would cause death by freezing within hours. Some 104 million barrels of crude and refined oil are transported up and down the Pacific Coast annually. In addition, there has been a proliferation of offshore oil rigs there in recent years.

A leaky engine, the rupture of a tanker, a ship sinking in a collision or a storm, could cover hundreds of square miles of ocean with oil. Such oil spills have already taken a toll of sea birds.

The range of the southern sea otter - a separate northern population inhabits the coast of Alaska - is 220 miles along the central California coast (see map). This coastal area also has some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Conservationists have long dreaded to imagine what would happen to the southern sea otter, should their population and an oil slick meet.

Ten years ago, the Friends of the Sea Otter decided action must be taken to set up a reserve breeding colony of these otters where they would be safe from oil spills.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service obtained a permit from the Department of Interior in 1987 that allows 250 sea otters - over a five-year period and no more than 70 a year - to be translocated from their normal habitat out to one of the Channel Islands that are grouped offshore due west of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. San Nicolas, the smallest, is the farthest outside the main tanker lanes.

Over the past two years 74 otters were caught, tagged, and transported to San Nicolas island.

Now that enough time has passed to assess the situation, it's ``good news and bad news.'' The good news comes from Friends of the Sea Otter biologist Rachel Saunders, who worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service during the translocation: ``About 20 sea otters have set up housekeeping at San Nicholas - rafting, grooming, foraging, and breeding in the near-shore island waters just as they must have done more than a century ago.''

Ms. Saunders adds, ``The remarkable news is that at least 11 of the animals moved apparently decided that while it was a nice place to visit, they didn't want to live there. They have returned home to the areas where they were captured - incredibly some to within just a few hundred meters of their former kelp bed rafting spots in the near-shore waters off San Luis Obispo County. This is a swim of more than 200 miles.''

Of the other missing otters, eight are known to be dead: three from drowning in fishing gear at other islands, three from stress, and of two found dead on the southern California mainland - one had been shot.

Later this year, another group of sea otters will be captured and taken to join the small colony at San Nicolas. ``We will take younger otters this time,'' says Michael Kenner, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. ``Apparently the homing instinct is more strongly entrenched in the older otters, like most of those we took in the first move.''

``We never thought translocation would be a `quick fix,''' said Carol Fulton, executive director of Friends of the Sea Otter. ``We realized that it would probably take many years before the success or failure of the breeding colony would be known.''

Fish and Wildlife is convinced that the translocation effort is worthwhile. ``If the reintroduction is a long-term success,'' Mr. Kenner said, ``it will be a giant step toward the recovery of the California sea otter.''

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