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California's Sea Otter - Photo by Terry LilleyCalifornia's Sea Otter: Historically, sea otters occupied a contiguous range from northern Japan, across the North Pacific, and down to Baja California, Mexico. Hunted nearly to extinction, currently listed as an Endangered Species, conservation measures have allowed some populations to recover. Unfortunately, sea otters are once again in decline due to modern pollutants & disease. There are differing opinions about how to respond to the challenges this recovery-decline presents and how sea otters are impacting positively or adversely the kelp forests and shell fish populations of the California coastline. Here is a bit of an overview of some of the issues. We hope to have more articles about this unique sea creature in the future. TopKayaker.net would like to thank kayak diver, Rocky Daniels for permission to reprint the following report.

Sea Otter Survival Challenges and
Their Impact Along the Pacific Coast

by Rocky Daniels

What is happening with California's Sea Otters? There have been three major developments related to California's sea otters during the past few years:

  • Sea otter population may be declining.
    Annual aerial surveys have come up with smaller raw counts starting with the 1996 survey. The 1998 count (1,937) came in at 11% below the 1995 peak count (2,190). Also, the 1998 Spring sea otter pup count was almost 50% lower than the 1997 count.

  • There are indications of an increase in infectious diseases.
    Necropsies indicate that up to 40% of dead sea otters suffer from some kind of infectious disease. The diseases involved were not know to be common to sea otters in the past suggesting infection may be on the increase.

  • Sea otters are expanding their range.
    During the winter storms of 1998, more than 100 sea otters rafted up in Cojo Bay south of Pt. Conception. During a February 1999 aerial survey, 152 sea otters were counted between Pt. Conception and Santa Barbara harbor. Based on patterns observed in Alaska, it appears Sea Otters have moved into the Southern California Bight and are planning to stay. There have also been reliable reports of sightings hundreds of miles north of the established sea otter range (Van Damme, Gualala, Timber Cove).
Why is this happening?

Nobody can say for sure. But the particular combination of a population drop coincident with a sudden expansion of foraging territory and an increase in disease strongly suggests the need for more and better food sources. If this is indeed the case, these developments are part the natural cycle that culls predator populations that are out of balance within their range.

Other ideas have been offered that central California's sea otters are facing increases in pollution and/or disease pathogens. Considering that central California's coast is some of the least populated, developed, and traveled to be found in the state, this possibility only adds to the abundance of new threats to sea otters as they move into waters south of Pt. Conception.

California mapWhat new threats do Sea Otters face south of Pt. Conception?

Current sea otter territory is centered between Pt. Conception and Monterey. This is a spectacularly rugged shoreline famous for coastal mountains that fall sheer into the sea. It's an area that is largely undeveloped and sparsely populated. Access to these coastal waters is so limited and anchorages so few that recreational and commercial fishing, diving, and boating are comparatively nonexistent. Indeed, it was the remoteness and ruggedness of this area that provided the last refuge for sea otters when they were being hunted into extinction. In a word, the area is a perfect natural refuge for sea otters.

South of Pt. Conception, by comparison, is among the worst, most dangerous places for a sea otter to venture. Those ocean waters are workplace and playground for one of the largest concentrations of humanity anywhere on earth. The new hazards sea otters will encounter include busy offshore boat and shipping traffic, pathogens and pollutants from dense coastal development and habitation, offshore oil operations, baited fish and lobster traps, just to name a few.

Are there other problems with California's Sea Otter expansion?

There is a concern about sea otter impacts on other species of marine populations already seriously depressed. Sea otters are stunningly voracious predators that consume as much as 25% of their body weight each and every day. Video clips before-/after-sea otters in Cojo Bay illustrates the impact sea otters have in a new area and raises various concerns about their range expansion:

  • Sea otters and shellfish fisheries cannot coexist
    Where sea otters are established, neither recreational nor commercial harvest of shellfish is possible. Sea otters simply don't leave much. There are substantial economic and cultural costs associated with the loss of crab, mussel, clam, abalone, sea urchin, sea cucumber, and lobster fisheries to sea otter expansion.

  • Southern California abalone are on the verge of extinction
    Human harvesting of abalone south of Pt. Conception was halted in 1997 through both regulatory and legislative processes. This was in response to warnings by leading scientists that California was on the verge of forfeiting the last opportunities for a future recovery of these resources. Since then, the foreseeable future for southern California's abalone has not improved. White abalone are now listed as Endangered (2005) under the Endangered Species Act, the first marine invertebrate to begin the listing process. Now, black abalone are being seriously considered for the ESA listing process with strong indications that green abalone will likely follow suit. All of these species are primarily found south of Pt. Conception. Shutting down human harvesting south of Pt. Conception was an attempt to salvage some chance of a future recovery of the abalone resources. Sea otter expansion into the Southern California Bight, at this time, appears to doom every likelihood of any future recovery.

  • Sea otters south of Pt. Conception is now allowed under federal law
    As a result of a project designed and supported by U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Friends of the sea otter, a federal law was passed that authorized the experimental relocation of central California sea otters to San Nicolas Island off southern California. An integral component of this law was the requirement that the sea otter range along California's mainland be limited to waters north of Pt. Conception. Recently the USFWS declared the experiment a failure and abandoned any future attempts at containing sea otter expansion.

Isn't human activity to blame for shellfish declines in Sea Otter territory?

For the past few decades, no. Certain species of shellfish off central California were subject to the pressures of human harvest before sea otters were a factor. Human activity very likely deserves most of the blame for the initial collapse of the central California abalone fishery, in particular. But, for more than 2 decades now, human harvesting of abalone along the central California coast has been effectively reduced to zero. During that same period, sea otter pressure alone has been enough to prevent recovery of the abalone fisheries.

Otter enjoying the morning sun at the Elkhorn Slough by kayaker Joseph ChudyIt is also important to note that certain shellfish resources within sea otter territory (sea urchins and sea cucumbers) have never been subjected to pressures from human harvesting. North and south of sea otter territory, these resources support a lucrative commercial fishery. In between, sea otter predation alone preempts all commercial harvesting.

Don't Sea Otters and Shellfish coexist?

Shellfish exist as a healthy, localized component of the environment within sea otter territory where sufficient cryptic habitat exists to provide some protection against predation. In those large expanses of central California's underwater terrain where cryptic habitat is limited and sea otters are common, most marine invertebrate species are comparatively rare to encounter.

Before the modern era, with its explosive populations and coastal industry, shellfish resources existed in sufficient quantities to be a significant food source for the native coastal residents. This was also a period when those coastal residents are believed to have also preyed on sea otters. The result would have been a buffer zone between humans on-/near-shore and sea otters farther out or in more remote locations. Modern observations would suggest the buffer zones provided refuges sufficient to replenish and maintain the stocks of prey species.

Aren't Sea Otters entitled to this expansion?

There's a lot of emotional appeal to the idea that humans exploited sea otters into near extinction during the 1700s and 1800s so that, today, there's some collective moral obligation to assist in their recovery. The appeal of this perspective is undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that sea otters are so damn cute (there certainly doesn't seem to be any equivalent sense of obligation and mission when it comes to turning Kansas City back over to the buffalo or reestablishing healthy concentrations of Grizzly Bears throughout California).

But approximately 2000 sea otters currently "own" most of central California's coastal waters. That's a lot of coastline. How much is enough? What price is reasonable to pay to add to California's sea otter population? Does that price include the loss of other species? Or total elimination of human consumption of California shellfish?

Where did the idea of limiting Sea Otter ranges come from?

A scientific and environmental fiasco known as the San Nicolas Sea Otter Translocation Experiment was devised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with political support provided by Friends of the Sea Otter. The result became federal Public Law 99-625. The motivation behind PL99-625 was to relocate some of central California's sea otters to San Nicolas Island off southern California to provide a hedge against the possibility that a central California oil spill (or other environmental disaster) might threaten the entire sea otter population off central California. (see Wikipedia "Exxon Valdez oil spill")


Why we love sea otters.
Cute video of Otters in captivity

Vigorous opposition to the San Nicolas Sea Otter Translocation Experiment was mounted by commercial abalone divers and some segments of the recreational dive community. The basis for the opposition was the potential loss of southern California's shellfish resources and the consequent loss of social, recreational, and economic components to southern California's coastal communities and culture. A "compromise" was proposed by the proponents of the experiment: sea otters found south of Pt. Conception (other than nearshore waters off San Nicolas Island) would be rounded up, as soon as weather conditions would allow, and moved back to the central California coast. "Containment" was embraced by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a key component of the experiment. Teams would be setup and trained in procedures needed for capturing wild sea otters. An 800- telephone number would be available to report wayward sea otters. When objections were raised about the practicality of this compromise proposal, opponents were vilified by Friends of the sea otters. Containment, they maintained, was a reasonable compromise. In the end, PL99-625 became law in 1986.

What is the status of the San Nicolas Sea Otter translocation experiment?

By even the most charitable assessment, it is a dismal failure. 139 sea otters were captured, 8 died in captivity before they could be released at San Nicolas Island, and, of the remaining 131: 35 were found back on the central California coast from which they were originally taken, 3 took up residence of at San Miguel Island, 16 remained at San Nicolas, and 77 are "whereabouts" unknown. It's entirely probable that this grand experiment killed up to 60% of its threatened-status subjects.

Little wonder, then, that the minutely detailed WEB history pages for Friends of the Sea Otter conspicuously omits the major role their organization played implementing the Translocation Experiment. Instead, you can find a position statement that the Translocation Experiment should be abandoned.

What is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doing about Sea Otter expansion south of Pt. Conception?

At a February 1999 presentation before the California Fish and Game Commission, Mike Spears detailed the two courses of "action" being taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

  • Evaluation of the failure criteria of PL99-625: If U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can declare the Translocation Experiment a failure, the "management zone" (California waters south of Pt. Conception) no longer exists. Without a "management zone", USFWS has no long-term obligation to maintain that area otter free. The only inconvenience to this approach is a one time PL99-625 requirement that the "management zone" be cleared of sea otters if the Translocation Experiment is declared a failure. Unless...

  • Section 7 analysis of the Endangered Species Act:
    Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to take action that will likely result in the deaths of an endangered species. During the late 1980s translocation to San Nicolas Island, eight sea otters died while in captivity. Though better capture and release techniques have been developed in the interim, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would like to use the 1980s fiasco as a basis to selectively override PL99-625.

So... the "actions" by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turn out to be finding a way to carefully take no action.

What can we do?

Regardless of which side of the line you position yourself, you're urged to get involved and communicate your concerns to government officials. This is a federal issue; the State of California has no jurisdiction. Federal agencies are notoriously unresponsive and arrogant in dealing with opposing members of the public. If your inclinations are not entirely in agreement with the views and plans of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, you are better off communicating your concerns to your senators and congressman/woman in the U.S. congress. The easiest way to get their names and addresses is to look in your telephone book; in California, you'll find the information in the Blue section under Government Officials. On-line, you can access CapWeb's search utility.

Rocky DanielsAbout the author, Rocky Daniels: Whether freediving or on SCUBA, Rocky's preferred method of getting to/from dive sites is on one his sit-on-top kayaks: two Aquaterra Prisms plus a Tsunami X0 Crossover surf boats. An avid kayak diver for over 15 years, Rocky achieved "something north of 600 logged dives before I got tired of logging them."

In recognition of the value the marine environment has played in his life, Rocky has been involved in varying degrees with a number of marine and diving related issues: the Marine Life Protection Act, California's Abalone Resource, Moskito Coast Lobster Divers, Sea Otters, Nearshore Rock Fish.

Resources:

Wikipedia: Sea Otter - Great resource with links to additional topics of interest regarding the sea otter. See here also Alaska's Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 responsible by some official estimates to have killed 3500 to 5,000 sea otters immediately and continues to effect the population in Prince William Sound.

Protecting Our Waters From Polluted Run-off - Southern California's stormwater systems carry millions of gallons of polluted runoff to the Pacific Ocean everyday. All living things, including Sea Otters, all across the world who depend on our waters face such dilemmas, some to the threat of extinction. Excess water from storm water pollution carries yard wastes, dirt and pesticides into gutters, down storm drains and into our oceans, lakes and streams. Find out how you can avoid contributing to this situation.

The Marine Mammel Center The Marine Mammal Center began rehabilitating sea otters in 1995.

Monterey Bay Aquarium sea otter protection program - Everything we do has this aim: to discover why California's threatened southern sea otter population is in crisis and how we can help the population thrive.

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