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:
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.
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.
What 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:
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.
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).
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")
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.
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:
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.
About 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.
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.
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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