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Fishermen Aren't Laughing Over Clowns of the Sea

California's comical sea otters continue to churn up trouble

When a whiff of fresh shrimp tickled Abra's whiskers, the California sea otter belly-danced her way into her private pool at Boston's New England Aquarium.

There, she joined Nellie, another otter and the two gathered shrimp, squid, and clams and proceeded to set up a sushi bar across their bellies.

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When the meal was done, these aquatic Teddy Bears continued to float on their backs, grooming their lush fur.

For many visitors, Nellie and Abra are "oh-so-cute." But looks can only count for so much as these animals compete against fishermen for food and continue a population comeback from near extinction.

Otters spend most of their time eating or grooming, says Marcie Tarvid, who spent six years as a surrogate mother to critters like Abra and Nellie at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

Nellie and Abra were rescued from California beaches and rehabilitated there. They became dependent on people and were reluctant to return to the wild, Ms. Tarvid says. Abra was seen approaching people and their pets on the beach. "In one incident, children lured and caught Abra with a baited hook which she swallowed - hook, line, and bait."

That's how Abra and Nellie came to Boston. But most sea otters aren't so fortunate. Their gourmet appetite and thick, soft fur have created problems.

Once-abundant, sea otters were hunted to near extinction during the 18th- and 19th-century for their lush pelts, which in the early 1900s were valued at from $400 for the brown fur to $2,500 for the silver-gray. Of all the animals in the world, sea otters have the densest fur coats - up to a million hairs per square inch in some places, explains Tarvid. Comparatively, a human head anchors a mere 60,000 hairs.

History shows that the sea otter played a key role in the exploration and settlement of the California shoreline. The lucrative prices for the otter pelts first lured the Spanish colonizers to the area, but the Russians quickly usurped the fur trade by building Fort Ross in 1812 to guard the rich otter hunting grounds.

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Otters became so depleted that by the time of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, a gift of four sea otter pelts to Her Majesty from a North American Indian tribe was considered a remarkable present.

California sea otters were presumed extinct for almost 50 years until March 1938. That's when a lodge keeper spotted a herd of 90 near California's coastal Highway 1. Until then, the stretch of California coast was almost inaccessible. The discovery drew a flood of scientists, photographers, and tourists to the scene. The otters are believed to have been hiding in obscure ocean caves. The same year another group of 200 sea otters was spotted.

Since then, conservation projects and strict federal laws have brought the otter back from oblivion.

Today, an estimated 2,400 southern or California sea otters forage the kelp beds along California's Monterey Bay coastline, preying on crabs, shellfish, and abalone - down from an estimated population of 20,000 when the first colonizers spotted the engaging creatures.

Fishermen now argue that the sea otter is no longer threatened and should be removed from the Endangered Species Act of 1977. Some fishermen have even called for plans to contain the animal's growing population by culling.

Sea otters are voracious eaters and have a taste for commercially lucrative delicacies such as abalone, shellfish, clams, and mussels. Not surprisingly, the appetites of sea otters and man have clashed. In fact, they consume about 25 percent of their body weight daily to maintain their metabolism, which provides them with the heat their bodies need in the cold waters, says Tarvid.

Abra, who weighs 45 pounds, must eat about 12 pounds of marine food a day. She eats more daily than a lion, and it costs more to feed her in captivity than it does to feed an elephant.

That's the kind of appetite California fishermen resent. They blame the gluttonous mammals for the depletion of abalone stocks, delicately flavored mollusks that are exported to Japan for sushi.

Last week, abalone divers rallied in Santa Barbara, Calif., to protest a proposed state ban on abalone harvests. They have also campaigned to remove the sea otter from the Endangered Species Act, which states that a population of 2,200 is healthy enough to survive. At present the population is estimated at 2,600.

Business interest groups must see beyond economic gains, says Susan Brown, executive director of Friends of the Sea Otter based in Monterey, Calif. She favors a comprehensive sea otter recovery plan before the animal is removed from the list in the event of an oil spill. In the area about 1,800 oil tankers transport about 450 million barrels of oil yearly.

To support her argument, Ms. Brown points to the Exxon Valdez oil spill that killed about 5,000 Alaskan sea otters.

To avoid such a disaster, a plan to relocate the entire colony in Monterey began about 10 years ago. Initially, 70 otters were airlifted 200 miles south to San Nicholas Island. But the project did not succeed. Some swam back to their Monterey Bay haven, some were unaccounted for, and 17 stayed behind.

Abra, Tarvid says, was named after a character from John Steinbeck's "East of Eden," because Steinbeck, too, was charmed by the Monterey Bay area.

Figuratively, as well as literally, Abra and Nellie have come a long way east of Eden to Boston where they had radio commercials touting their arrival as well as their grooming habits.

The question is, will the rest of the sea otters be able to find their Eden?

* You can find more information about sea otters on the Internet at

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