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Sea Otter Experiment Failed, Groups Claim

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) - Environmental groups say it's about time for federal agencies to admit that a sea otter relocation program has failed and to repeal a "no otter zone" along the Southern California coastline - an alleged concession to the oil and shellfish industries.

In a federal lawsuit, the Otter Project and the Environmental Defense Center say the Fish and Wildlife Service waited for more than two decades to admit that its experiment - moving a population of southern sea otters to San Nicolas Island - didn't work.

North America's smallest marine mammal, once plentiful along the Pacific Coast down to Baja California, was hunted to near extinction for its insulating pelt. Thought to be extinct by the early 1900s, a population of 50 otters was discovered along the Big Sur coast in 1938.

The southern sea otter's listing as a threatened species in 1977 led to a 1982 recovery plan that called for an additional population to be established elsewhere. The translocation program, launched in 1987, was intended to provide a genetic backup in case a catastrophic oil spill wiped out the Big Sur otter holdouts.

But the plaintiffs say the translocation program was a disaster from the start.

The remote, Navy-controlled island of San Nicolas was selected as the new population's home, and in a concession to the shellfish and oil and gas industries, the entire Southern California coastline was declared a massive "no otter" zone.

Of the 140 sea otters relocated, 90 percent died, tried to swim back to their Big Sur home or migrated into the no-otter zone. The fate of 73 animals was never known. The new population didn't reach expected levels, while the Big Sur otters failed to migrate northward as anticipated, the groups say.

Congress authorized the translocation program as an interim measure, the lawsuit states, and the Fish and Wildlife Service was supposed to assess the success or failure of the program based on five criteria. Despite several draft evaluations, the agency never finalized an assessment of the program - which is particularly bad in light of a 2000 finding that it may jeopardize the existence of the species, the groups say.

They say information surfaced after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, indicating that the San Nicolas population wouldn't even be safe from a spill that could also affect the Big Sur colony.

The plan also doesn't take into account the attempted migrations of more than 100 animals into the no-otter zone from 1997 to 1999, the plaintiffs claim.

The groups, represented by Brian Segee in Santa Barbara, Calif., seek a final determination on the translocation project, termination of the 1987 rule and abolition of the no-otter zone.

Sea otters are a key indicator of the health of marine ecosystems. Species dependent on kelp have been harmed by the lack of otters, as sea urchins, the otters' main food source, devoured the plant in the absence of predators.

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