At a hearing this afternoon, the Santa Barbara City Council will consider whether it “otter” let some of the most dangerously cute animals in the Pacific Ocean return to local waters after more than a decade in exile.
During the hearing, council members will discuss an update to the Santa Barbara City Council policy on southern sea otters and decide whether to authorize a letter to the U.S. Dept. of the Interior on the matter. In an Oct. 5 press release, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the sea otters, which have recently returned to the Santa Barbara coast after being systematically removed from local waters for many years, be allowed to stay in the area. The change in policy, which could be approved today, would allow the otters to stay in Santa Barbara and would not restrict more otters from settling in the area.
Council member Das Williams, who is co-sponsoring today’s hearing with fellow council member Helene Schneider, said he thinks the hearing could result in a substantial shift in the city council’s policies toward the presence of otters in Santa Barbara.
“The intent of the hearing is to change the council’s position from no-otter to pro-otter,” Williams said.
A 1987 program coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – a division of the U.S. Dept. of the Interior – resulted in the relocation of many otters from Santa Barbara to San Nicolas Island, Williams said. He said the program was created to protect the creatures from man-made catastrophes such as oil spills.
The letter to the Dept. of the Interior, which the council is considering today, alleges that the relocation plan did not take into account the mobility of otter populations, or the high mortality rate of relocated otters.
Having sea otters in Santa Barbara’s waters is fun for local beachgoers, Williams said, and produces many benefits for the local environment. Among other things, he said, the otters’ diet includes sea urchins that damage kelp forests, which plays an important role in the coastal ecosystem.
“I’m a surfer,” Williams said. “I don’t mind sharing the water with sea otters, but it has practical purposes, as well.”
Santa Barbara could also benefit economically from the presence of otters, Williams said in the draft of the letter to the Dept. of the Interior. The letter, which was signed by Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum, states that otters are a good tourist attraction.
According to the letter, a study done by Defenders of Wildlife – an international animal rights group – found that increased populations of sea otters in the area could result in the creation of around 50 to 250 extra jobs in Santa Barbara’s tourist industry. 0.
Opponents of the policy change include fisheries and individual fishermen who fear that the otters could have a negative impact on their businesses, Williams said. He said the policy’s detractors are mainly limited to fishermen who specialize in sea urchins.
“Sea urchin fisherman are opposed because they want as many [sea urchins] as they can get,” Williams said. “The crab and lobster fishermen are concerned there might be less [catch], but aren’t adamantly against it.”
According to the policy drafted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 140 otters were relocated from Santa Barbara to San Nicolas Island as part of the 1987 relocation program between August 1987 and March 1990. The majority of the otters left the island and either returned to Southern and Central California, or were never accounted for.
Today’s meeting will give locals a chance to voice their opinions about the otter relocation project and the possibility of a change in Santa Barbara’s policy regarding the animals, Williams said.
“It’s a great opportunity to impact the local and federal governments’ policies – to embrace otters and allow otters to live and thrive in Santa Barbara,” he said.