This has been a pretty good year for sea otters and other marine life along the California coast.
After trying for a quarter-century to manage the otter population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is letting go of its relocation program, thus allowing the playful but ravenous critters to roam the bays and inlets along the California coastline.
Actually, the feds abandoning the otter relocation program really means they’ll go back to their habits and habitats, mostly from Monterey Bay to the border with Mexico. Otters seem to prefer Southern California, as do many humans.
Good news for the otter, however, is not such good news for fishermen, especial sea urchin divers, who insist that the otters decimate the shellfish population. They’re right about that dynamic, but unfortunately for them, otters were fishing these waters eons before human divers came around.
The otter population is far from what it once was. By the time federal agencies began their attempt to relocate otters in an effort to save the species, the count had dropped from an estimated high of more than 16,000 in the late 18th century to less than 3,000. The dramatic depopulation was mostly a result of hunting during the early 19th century, in search of the otters’ luxurious fur.
This was a good year for otters, to be sure, but it looks like some fishermen will have to find a new way to earn a living.
And 2012 has also been a thumbs-up month for California’s marine reserve network, as the final piece of the underwater puzzle fell into place earlier this month in waters off the northern coast.
What that means is that nearly 900 square miles of coastal waters are now protected, from the Oregon state line to the border with Mexico. And like the feds’ decision to let the otters roam, the marine reserve has not been a popular movement for a lot of folks who make their living from the sea.
In the 12 years since various state and federal agencies have been working to patch together a continuous reserve area, bureaucrats have had to endure being cussed out, shouted at, targeted by death threats and confronted by angry mobs of mostly recreational and commercial fishermen who don’t seem to understand that they’re not being prevented from plying their hobby, passion or trade, just that they can’t do it in certain areas.
California’s Marine Life Protection Act of 1999 is modeled after similar reserves on dry land, and with the same goal, to give animals a haven in which they have to fear neither bullets nor bait.
There is ample evidence throughout human history that indiscriminate taking of wildlife can and does lead to killing off entire species. If, however, mankind offers some refuge for those species, they tend to prosper. In so far as hunting and fishing go, protecting a species is just common sense.
In fact, the notion of a marine sanctuary was suggested by an avid fisherman, who watched over the years as fish he once caught off the islands in the Santa Barbara Channel slowly disappeared because of overfishing in certain spots.
The logic behind marine reserves is solid — protected fish grow to full size, then roam out to, perhaps, be caught in non-reserve zones. In that context, the reserve areas should be considered greenhouses for both recreational and commercial fishing.
A lot of fishermen didn’t agree with that logic. Thankfully, their voices were overwhelmed by pragmatists, as well as environmentalists, who see the value of animal species protection.