LOS ANGELES — The first hint of trouble in trying to save endangered sea otters and protect fishermen competing for the shellfish the creatures eat was when bureaucrats drew a line in the ocean separating the two.
That was followed by an unsuccessful attempt to create a colony for the creatures on a distant island and a more disastrous venture to relocate strays who wandered into what was dubbed the "no-otter zone."
The otters didn't cooperate and their subsequent rebound in Southern California created a classic man vs. nature conflict that could alter a two-decade recovery program and raises the question of what species is more endangered: animals or urchin divers.
At the heart of the matter is a well-intentioned attempt to control nature for commerce that backfired.
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"It's a view of the world as if animals are your chess pieces," said Lilian Carswell, who oversees otter recovery at U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
The agency long ago abandoned the costly and ineffective transfer policy, but environmentalists who claim the otters are being targeted filed a lawsuit in federal court last year to extend protections for otters that migrate outside the artificial boundaries.
"They're moving into a hostile environment," said Allison Ford of the Otter Project, which sued the Department of Interior and Fish and Wildlife. "We've heard anecdotal evidence of otters being shot, harassed and run over by boats."
Shellfish divers liken the voracious mammals to locusts of the sea and fear that giving the critters free rein will jeopardize their industry. Fishermen deny harming the otters, but claim the animals have devastated the sea urchin population wherever they've gone.
Ironically, it was the near-extinction of the otters that allowed segments of the fishing industry to thrive. Urchin and shellfish blossomed when the otters were nearly wiped out by fur traders who hunted the marine mammals in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Once numbering as many as 18,000 along the giant kelp beds of the California coast, the species sank to about 20 otters off Big Sur in 1938.
The population gradually rebounded after being listed as threatened in 1977 and the population now hovers around 2,800, including an estimated 70 in the no-otter zone.
This isn't the first time efforts to save a threatened or endangered species have collided with other interests. Whether it's bald eagles, grizzly bears or gray wolves, protecting animals has often produced unintended consequences. Fights are still going on in Wyoming over whether wolves can be shot as predators.
Pitting sea urchins, which have about as much personality as a rock with spines, against the sea otters is a public relations nightmare.
"They're cute and have a really big following," concedes Harry Liquornik, a longtime diver.