From cliffside restaurants, diners here can watch sea otters dining on clams, far below.

The Otters - cute, whiskered little animals that use rocks to break open clams are recent visitors to this area. Their arrival, however, is not welcome.

The folks here, you see, are afraid the otters, once the threatened by extinction and now a protected species, will eat all their Pismo clams. Pismo Beach, about half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is the Yankee Stadium of sport clamming. And clams are the mainstay of its tourist industry. The sea otter, like the shark in "Jaws," is an eating machine. Dining on shellfish, an adult otter - up to 80 pounds - will eat 25 to 35 percent of its body weight daily.

Dave Stratton, a Pismo Beach businessman, looked out the dining room window of Trader Vick's restaurant and grimaced at what he saw - a sea otter munching on a clam.

"You know, I have a friend who is a good shot with a deer rifle," he said. "He could sit on a cliff around here and shoot all of them. And he wouldn't miss any, either."

There already has been shooting in Morro Bay, a few miles north. In 1969, 12 sea otters were found shot, and another 17 were reported shot in 1972. In Morro Bay, otters eat abalone, a popular sea food, along with other shellfish.(FOOTNOTE)rank Mello, a Pismo Beach area farmer, said: "I think by shooting some otters you would force the issue and get the government's attention. If we try to solve the problem by writing letters to congressmen and bureaucrats, it would take years for something to happen."

Shooting a sea otter is a federal offense, punishable by a fine of up to $20,000 and/or imprisonment of up to one year.

California Department of Fish and Game biologists, who have studied the sea otter's voracious eating habits in its slow southerly movement, say it may already be too late.

"It's my guess the Pismo clam at Pismo Beach is as good as gone," said department biologist Bob Hardy.

The state agency can only study the sea otter's movements. Management responsibility rests with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose California representatives have discussed the Pismo situation, but say there are no plans to try to halt the oter's southerly movement.

Hardy said: "Nine sea otters at Pismo Beach in one year will eat the same number of Pismo clams taken all year by all the sport clammers. We've counted 44 otters off Sunset Palisades (about five miles north of Pismo Beach). If those 44 move to Pismo, they could eliminate the clam fishery there in two to three years.

Thus, a confrontation is shaping up between California's 100,000 or so sport clammers, the city of Pismo Beach and those in favor of expanding the sea otter's range.

The notion of losing the Pismo clam beds disturbs many in Pismo Beach, particulary motel owners.

Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce members can't say for sure how many people visit annually to dig clams, but their estimate ranges up to 90,000.

John Dillon, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said: "Our two main sources of income are our sales and bed taxes (paid by motel guests.) In 1978, our income from the sales tax was $204,000. The bed tax brought $200,000. That will decline significantly if we lose our clams."

Pismo clams are found just beneath the surface of broad, rock-free beaches. Their shell colors range from buckskin to chocolate. Some have radiating brown stripes.

Legal minimum size is 4 1/2 inches at the greatest diameter and the limit is 10 a day. The record: a 7 3/8-inch, four-pounder, estimated to be 26 years old.

Otters, of course, don't know there's a size limit.

Earl Ebert, another state biologist, said: "The otters are pretty effective at cropping out all the clams down to 2 1/2 inches. At that point, you have no sport fishery left."

Pismo Beach officials, principally the Chamber of Commerce, have undertaken an intensive letter-writing campaign to state and federal legislators and wildlife agencies, pleading for help. They want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to halt the sea otters' southerly movements, by any means necessary.

The sea otter, hunted by Russian, U.S. British, Canadian and Japanese fur traders for nearly 100 years, once was brought to the brink of extinction off California. Fewer than 500 existed when commercial hunting was stopped in 1911.

The fur, once coveted by czars and mandarins, is one of the most luxurious in the world. Since 1972, harvesting anywhere in U.S. waters has been illegal.

Otters had virtually disappeared off the California coast by the early part of this century. A few were sighted again in 1937, 15 miles south of Carmel, on California's Monterrey Peninsula, and their range has expanded southerly ever since.

"A commercial harvest of sea otters would be one solution to California's sea otter problem," Ebert said. "But realistically, it's so unlikely it's not even worth discussing."

He was referring to Friends of the Sea Otter, a Carmel-based protectionist group with 4,000 members.

"Our position is we want the sea otter to be allowed to occupy as much of his former range as possible," said Betty Davis, the group's executive secretary.

"Certainly," she added, "otters will eat a lot of shelfish wherever they go. But don't forget, abalone and clam fisheries have been under tremendous human pressure, too, for years."

"We're not opposed to the presence of sea otters," Ebert said. "We enjoy watching them as much as anyone. We just feel they should be restricted . . . why give them the whole coast?

"We disagreed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service classifying the otter as a threatened species in 1977. We feel there's a healthy, well-established population of 2,000 animals in California."

It should be pointed out the state agency's policy toward the sea otter is tilted in the direction of sport clamming, since clammers must buy fishing licenses, and revenue from fishing licenses pays salaries. (KEY OFF)(KEYWORD)t many coastal points along the sea otterhs present 300-mile range, sea otter-watching has become a growing pastime. The otters submerge for several minutes, reappearing with a clam, and smash open the clam on their stomachs with a rock.t's one of the most appealing sights in nature. But to folks in Pismo Beach, a weekend clamming haven for nearly half a century, the sea otter is viewed in roughly the same manner as the folks in Amity (the town in "Jaws") regarded their visitor.

"If you're a farmer and you get the boll weevil, you classify it as a pest and you get rid of it," Frank Mello said. "That's how we feel about the sea otter." (END FOOT) CAPTION: Picture, Sea Otter