Damn the Man

Fishermen and Animal Advocates Denounce No-Otter Zone More than a hundred people turned out Tuesday at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to provide public comment on the October recommendation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to demilitarize the “No-Otter Zone” south of Point Conception. Raw emotions and science tangled as environmentalists, scientists, and commercial fishermen took the microphone to share their views on the controversial government program that banned otters from area waters two decades ago. The ban was a relative failure from the outset-otters can’t read-and FWS officially abandoned efforts to “relocate” otters that strayed into the zone in 1993. Now, after 12 years’ review, FWS is ready to move on and Santa Barbarans of all stripes were eager to kick them on their way out Tuesday night.

Dozens of animal rights advocates pronounced the zone a “failure” and called for allowing the otters to officially and freely return to their historical home. Otters roaming free and clear would boost the economy and revive kelp forests-according to such otter sympathizers as the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Center, the Otter Project, Defenders of Wildlife, and Santa Barbara City Councilmember Das Williams.

Maybe so, but the sea otter’s primary sources of sustenance are the shellfish, sea urchins, and lobsters that comprise the main source of income for dozens of Santa Barbara fishermen.

Further complicating matters, the majority of contemporary otter deaths are the result of oil spills, natural oil seepage, and toxic runoff, none of which are affected by zones governing where otters are “allowed” to swim. This final issue was the core message delivered by a small group of speakers who stressed the importance of otter recovery options not currently considered by FWS, such as reining in coastal development, outlawing the use of certain herbicides and pesticides, and requesting federal grants for sea urchin and abalone farms as means to bring balance to the situation. Vice president for the California lobster fishery Chris Miller summed up the conflict, saying, “There has to be some will from the local people in the region. … We cannot just look to the federal government to fix this problem. We need a holistic approach.”

The FWS will continue to hear public comment on the “no zone” through the end of the year and expects to give its final decision in early 2006.

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