Not even the most politically savvy sea otter activist tries to deny it: If the endangered species is once again allowed to swim in Southern California waters as is currently being proposed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the commercial shellfisheries along the mainland coast from Point Conception to Carpinteria — namely spiny lobster, sea urchin, crab, and sea cucumber — are likely to be decimated within a decade. “It’s like introducing Godzilla to Southern California,” claimed fisherman Jerome Betts of Santa Maria, one of more than 25 speakers who talked before about 100 attendees during Tuesday night’s hearing at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. But that’s a small price to pay for saving a species from extinction, argue scientists such as Chris Harrold with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “The science is crystal clear,” said Harrold, explaining that the evidence repeatedly shows that otters turn coastal zones into healthy kelp forest ecosystems that support an astounding diversity of life. “[The otters] need all the help they can get.”
The hearing was to gather public comments on Fish & Wildlife’s plan to end the 24-year-old translocation program, which sought to establish another population on San Nicolas Island in the event of the oil spill or other disaster on the Central Coast, where the otters have persisted for millennia; the program — which moved any otter that ventured south of Point Conception to San Nicolas — was also a tradeoff for Santa Barbara Channel fishermen, who successfully argued for their cause in the 1980s when the special rule to enable the program was passed. But the program never met its goals — otters died, migrated, and disappeared from San Nic, although it’s still home to a steady population — and the feds stopped touching otters that disobeyed the invisible line in the sea long ago.
On Tuesday, the crowd was divided between fishermen — including those that use gill and trammel nets to catch halibut and sea bass, as they may have to move further from the coast if otters return — and otter advocates, from kayakers and UCSB students to professional conservationists. The fishermen threw out a number of arguments: the program is not actually a failure due to technicalities, otters are more threatened by pollution, otters will starve themselves and kill fisheries, otters will decimate endangered abalone species, and there’s no compromise on incidental take. “An alternative should be developed to allow the protection of the commercial fishing industry,” said Chris Voss, head of the California Abalone Association That, who explained that was done in the past. “Now there’s this ridiculous move to not do that…We’ve got to strike a balance.”
Otter fans, meanwhile, expressed openness to discussing rules about incidental take, so long as it didn’t delay the official end of a program that hasn’t been in effect for years anyway. And though shellfish populations may slowly dwindle below commercially acceptable levels, “it’s not going to happen overnight,” said Brian Segee, of the Environmental Defense Center, whose lawsuit against the government for The Otter Project is what led to the proposed change. “We still have fisheries north of here. We still have fisheries in Alaska….I’m confident we can have both otters and a fishing industry in Southern California.”