A "no" vote on Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s seismic survey plans may be a "yes" for California sea otters.
A long-term study of sea otter health, funded by PG&E as part of its permit application, will still go forward even though its testing plans were unanimously denied by the California Coastal Commission on Wednesday.
The utility's plans called for underwater sound blasts to map the Hosgri fault line near the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. The survey was part of PG&E's safety assessments. But the range and decibel level of the blasts could have displaced, injured or killed marine life, according to marine life experts.
In advance of getting approval, PG&E funded the otter study to mitigate the impact on marine life in the area, said Mark Krausse, a company director. The proposed seismic testing area included places where otters forage for food, make their homes and raise their pups. The exact amount of funding was not immediately available.
In October, 47 otters in the Morro Bay area were outfitted with VHF tags for daily monitoring, said Dr. Mike Murray, a veterinarian and sea otter specialist at Monterey Bay Aquarium.
It isn't easy to tag otters, Murray said. They must be captured, sedated, surgically implanted with a monitor and then safely released.
Two otters were humanely euthanized because of severe injuries and illness that affected them before they were captured, he said.
The health information will be analyzed by U.S. Geological Survey scientists who designed the study to answer questions about the impact of sound blasts on otters' hearing, heads and habitat. The study will last at least a year, Murray said.
The study was opposed by Steve Shimek, founder of Monterey-based The Otter Project, because it wouldn't have saved any animals from the impact of seismic testing. But with the PG&E plans off the table, he had nothing but praise for the "top-notch scientists and collaborative effort" of the USGS study.
Otters are considered sentinels of coastal ecosystem health. They are the focus of the Pacific Nearshore Project, a study led by the USGS, that monitors otter populations from California to Alaska.
Elizabeth Devitt can be reached at 684-1188 or email@example.com.