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updated 10/12/2011 8:50:03 AM ET 2011-10-12T12:50:03

Adorable and playful, otters consistently rank among the top reasons for visits to aquariums and zoos. Out in the wild, though, the furry creatures are currently stuck in the middle of a heated debate.

Conservationists want to allow the charismatic mammals back into southern California waters that have been prohibited to them for decades. But because otters eat sea urchins, abalone and other valuable shellfish, fishermen think that rehabilitation efforts will destroy the industry that supports them and their families.

It is a theme that reaches far beyond the West Coast. Around the world, people make a living through activities that threaten a range of vulnerable species, from wolves to tigers. And when the plights of animals butt up against the needs of people, there are never easy answers.

"It is one of these difficult issues that pit the human use of resources against the recovery of a protected species," said Chris Harrold, director of conservation research at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "It's a difficult issue for both people whose livelihoods it affects and people who feel endangered species recovery is important."

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Sea otters once lived along the entire west coast of North America from Baja California to the Aleutian Islands, Harrold said, until the fur trade reduced their numbers by 99 percent in the 1700s and 1800s.

California's otters were hardest hit because they had fewer places to hide. So, even as Alaskan otters rebounded quickly after the furious hunt for fur ended in 1911, Californian populations remained close to extinction, with an estimated 50 animals remaining along the central coast.

Californian sea otters were finally classified as threatened in the late 1970s because the animals were not rebounding as quickly as biologists thought they should be. Despite protections, populations were growing by less than five percent each year and sometimes not at all, even though numbers were increasing at an annual rate of 15 percent in the Aleutian Islands.

Given such a small group size, scientists were also becoming concerned about that an oil spill might some day wipe the animals out. Oil is particularly dangerous to otters because they use fur instead of blubber to stay warm and oily fur leads to fatal hypothermia. So, the Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to create a buffer population by moving some otters to San Nicolas Island off the coast of Los Angles.


WATCH VIDEO: Find out how studying sea otter poo can help save the endangered animals.

The plan has not panned out as originally designed. Sea otters have a strong homing instinct, and many of them disappeared in their attempt to swim back to the coast. The stress of being captured and moved also turned out to be more than most otters can handle -- also a problem because a declared fishery management zone has required the capture and relocation of otters that wander too far south into the waters below Point Conception near Santa Barbara.

Realizing that their efforts to help otters have done more harm than good, the FWS has formulated a new plan. Instead of moving the animals around, officials now want to simply let otters roam freely.

Otters already face plenty of other threats, including diseases, pollution and harmful algal blooms. Now, experts argue, otters need all the help they can get.

"Life is tough for sea otters," Harrold said. "In my opinion and in the opinion of other biologists, allowing the population to expand into new habitats would probably contribute to population recovery."

Fishermen are not happy about the proposal. Sea otters eat spiny lobsters, sea urchins, crabs, sea cucumbers and abalone -- the same types of shellfish that some fisherman catch and sell to make a living. And whenever otters repopulate an area, they eat enough to destroy the value of commercial and recreational fishing for those species.

On the other side, some argue that the reappearance of otters would actually do more for Southern California's economy that shellfish fisheries do. Shellfish are major kelp grazers. So, when otters return to a region, kelp forests begin to rebound. These ecosystems support a wide variety of fish, Harrold said, opening up opportunities for other kinds of fishing as well as for photographers, party boat operators, kayaking tours and other activities.

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That argument, presented in several public hearings in the last few weeks, does not offer much consolation to people like Andy Rasmussen, a commercial fisherman in Santa Barbara who has been catching lobsters and sea bass in southern California for 30 years. Through his work, Rasmussen said, he is providing the public with a valuable source of quality, local seafood. If otters are allowed to return, that resource will be gone.

"I'm trying to figure out what else I can do," he said. "There are no open fisheries. There is limited entry, and you can't jump from one fishery to another. I don't have many options."

If fisheries are going to be forced to lose out for the sake of otters, officials ought to do much more to protect all kinds of life under the sea, added Zeke Grader, executive director of The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, a trade group based in San Francisco. He said that water quality, in particular, needs to be a bigger priority.

"You can't just ask fishermen to continually give up their livelihoods in response to trying to protect animals like otters and seabirds, but then not take the next step to stop pollution, which is also killing these animals," Grader said. "That's the troubling aspect here."

"Everybody waves their hands about wanting to protect otters, and that's good, but damn it, do it," he added. "Don't just pick off fishermen and allow polluters to go on with business as usual."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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