From Tony Barboza in the LA Times:
LOS ANGELES — A bill backed by House Republicans would stall plans to let sea otters reclaim their historical range off Southern California because of concerns that the threatened marine mammals would compromise commercial fishing and military training operations.
The Military Readiness and Southern Sea Otter Conservation Act, sponsored by Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., would keep a controversial “no-otter zone” south of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County in place until wildlife officials develop a plan ensuring that the furry creatures and endangered abalone recover and that the commercial shellfish harvest stays at current levels.
Those provisions drew fire this week from wildlife experts, who believe the sea otters’ recovery from the brink of extinction decades ago could be in jeopardy unless they are allowed to extend their range south from the Central Coast into Southern California.
The bill contends the furry critters could undermine training and testing activities at San Nicolas Island, San Clemente Island and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, where the military conducts underwater detonations, live-fire exercises, amphibious warfare training and missile launches. The legislation would establish zones around the military installations where sea otters would be exempt from some protections under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Gallegly said in a statement supporting his bill that when sea otters move south they “will be invading prime shellfish fishing grounds and U.S. naval testing areas. While I support recovery efforts of the southern sea otter, this cannot happen at the expense of our national security, the commercial shellfish fishing industries, and other endangered species.”
Critics say lawmakers are using national defense as a cover to benefit the fishing industry, which fears that otters will gobble up the region’s shellfish.
Sea otters are such voracious consumers of sea urchins, abalone, mussels and clams that under the bill “there is no way the government could follow the law and let otters extend their range,” said Jason Lutterman, program manager with the Carmel, Calif.-based advocacy group Friends of the Sea Otter. The group is one of a coalition of conservation groups that oppose the bill as “dangerously counterproductive to the conservation and recovery of the threatened southern sea otter.”