The Sea Otter Foundation History Page 3


The Sea Otter: 1938 to 2016


The Sea Otter: 1938 to 2016


In 1938 southern sea otters were still considered extinct when about fifty were discovered near Big Sur, California. This amazing find happened just offshore amongst the kelp, in a rugged area of pristine natural beauty along California’s Central Coast. The sea otter population slowly began to rebuild. The Fur Seal Act of 1966 and the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act gave the otters some additional protection and in 1977, southern sea otters became protected, by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. At that time there were estimated to be around 1,000 sea otters.

In the 1980’s, the Reagan administration restricted southern sea otter reintroduction by pushing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare ocean waters south of Gaviota State Park, near Santa Barbara, California, also known as Point Conception, to be an “Otter-Free or No Otter Zone”. When otters were found south of Point Conception no laws protected them. Some would be shot, others entangled and killed in fishing nets, and without the possibility of public legal discourse or outcry, because these incidents were not required to be reported.

Since 1985, in early autumn and late spring, the U.S. Geological Service counts otters along the 375 miles of current habitat range. The 1985 survey counted about 1,300, as slow rebounding occurred. The 1993 census counted about 2,100 southern otters. In 2009, the USGS count was 2,813, down from the previous three years, the first time the three year average dropped since the mid-1990’s.

In response, Jim Curland of Defenders of Wildlife, stated “In order to save California sea otters, we have to find out why they are dying,” poignantly adding “This species is an emblem for California. It is the canary in the coal mine for the marine ecosystem. We certainly don’t want to lose them on our watch.”  

With populations averaging around 2,800 in recent years. In 2015, their numbers climbed to a modern high of 3,054. To be removed from threatened status, the otter population must rise above 3,090 for three consecutive years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggested high mortality, not low birth rates, are responsible for the slow growth of the otter population. There have also been periods where the otter has declined. Attempts to relocate otters to California’s San Nicolas Island proved ineffective, as many otters swam back to their parent population along the central coast of California. There are currently about 100 otters on San Nicolas Island.

Today’s deaths of otters are caused by a variety of sources, says Melisa Miller, necropsy veterinarian at the CDFG Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, “We saw an increase in death due to white shark ‘tasting’ bites. We are working closely with our collaborators to understand what could be driving this new trend. Other causes of death were also evident: harmful algae toxics, parasites and infectious diseases, mating trauma, emaciation, bacterial infections, heart disease (cardiac lesions) and boat strikes round out the list.”

In the 1980’s shark bite deaths are said to have accounted for about 8% of otter deaths. “But we’re starting to see a perplexing trend suggesting increased shark attacks on sea otters,” says Tim Tinker, biologist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center who supervises the annual census. “Shark bite deaths accounted for 15% of recovered carcasses by the late 1990’s, and this has risen to approximately 30% of recovered carcasses in 2010 and 2011.” The increased great white shark deaths are perplexing because shark population is down to only 339 counted in nearby waters, far fewer than researchers expected, causing calls for placing the fearsome predators on the endangered species list. Could it be the sharks traditional prey are disappearing as well, and that is why they are targeting otters?

On the recent census numbers showing relatively no growth in the population recently, Tinker observes “We saw a similar plateau in the late 1990’s, before sea otter numbers began to rise again in the early 2000’s. Recent shifts in mortality causes have brought to light additional explanations for the cessation of growth we’ve seen over the last few years.” He suggested the lack of population growth within the center of the range and densities highest, may explain that otter populations equilibrium in the long-established areas. “The population density of sea otters is ultimately limited by their prey resources, although reduced food abundance may act in concert with other factors, such as infectious diseases.”

Considering otters may reach population equilibrium in their currently established habitat, the only way population recovery can continue is to grow in areas where otters previously resided. In 2004, the first sea otter returned to Oregon. This prompted the Elakha Alliance, based in Portland, to issue a statement “After 100 years we finally have a wild otter willing to stay here. . . There’s something kind of magical about actually having a sea otter floating out there on the Oregon coast. Plus, sea otters are so cute that this animal might be a spark that gets people to start thinking differently.” At the time, they stated “The sighting of one animal is encouraging. We hope that’s just the beginning and want to see a national marine sanctuary established so that whether the sea otters come back by themselves or via a transplant program, they will have a refuge, a place where the kelp beds have been restored and natural ecosystems are starting to function more like they are intended to.”

Sea otter protection and rehabilitation have been massively underfunded. Other programs, such as bringing salmon runs back, have received millions of dollars in support. The Sea Otter Fund is the main source of funding for sea otter research and conservation efforts in California. The program is a voluntary check-off box on state income tax forms. “The tax check-off program has been wildly successful since it was introduced on the California tax form, raising nearly $1.5 million dollars over the last five years,” says Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. “The tax check-off is a completely voluntary program driven solely by taxpayer contributions. Even in a tough economy, Californians dug deep, allowing the Sea Otter Fund to meet its target. This goes to show how much Californians want the sea otters to recover along their shores.” The sea otter fund was extended for five years in 2011 when Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation re-establishing a primary source of funding for the sea otters.

Saving the Sea Otter

Near Monterey, California, the sea grass beds in Elkhorn Slough that had been depleted by algae blooms have since flourished upon return of sea otters to the estuary. Sea otters eat crabs, who eat sea slugs that eat algae, which eats sea grass, where the fish like to live. And otters sometimes eat fish. This natural reality represents a cycle of life that is nature finding balance. Otters may regulate fish populations in ways that we do not yet realize.

In 2012, additional marine sanctuaries were established along the coast off San Diego County, where there are now 11 marine protected areas, or MPA‘s (the U.S. has over 1,600 MPA’s) These areas are prime grounds for the sea otter to re-establish itself in southern waters where ample kelp beds in the area could support otters.

In December 2012, the 25 year ban on the otters from southern California waters was finally lifted. Coincidently, about that same time, shipboard birdwatchers returning to San Diego bay were amazed to witness a southern sea otter amongst the kelp. The otter reportedly floated nearby for about fifteen minutes, as the excited group photographed the mammal. Many who have spent entire careers on the water around San Diego have not personally seen a single otter. Another ’lone traveler’ was spotted in Laguna Beach, possibly the same otter.

Re-establishing otters in southern California waters will not be easy on the mammals. Toxic pollutants and shellfish harvesters are working against them. Otters are naturally drawn to river outlets and lagoons, exactly where many pollutants enter the ocean, meaning the density of toxins is highest at these locations. They include Santa Monica Bay, San Pedro and Long Beach harbors, along with most tidal inlets, creeks, rivers and lagoons. These contaminated waters flowing into the Pacific Ocean put jeopardy on the successful return of new otter colonies in waters they previously flourished in.

In another otter connection, black, pink, green and white abalone also are facing difficult times because their diet consists of kelp and algae. “Their numbers and densities are so low that the surviving males and females out there are simply not close enough to successfully spawn,” said Melissa Newman at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Long Beach, California “There is really no way to get them back without human intervention of some kind.” Maybe the same could be said of the otters.

When sea otters thrived along the Pacific coast from Baja, Mexico to Alaska, kelp forests were robust and abundant with marine life. This is no longer the case. Did the ecosystem of previous centuries help our atmosphere to balance and maintain more moderate climate change? The world’s climate is in a continuous flux, with change occurring constantly and inevitable. But could nature prevent its current accelerated pace? How important is the role sea otters play in this balance? As humans continue to neglect the planet, we increasingly become the only species with the ability to protect Earth’s diverse populations, including our own.

Going back to 1700, almost two-hundred years before the industrial revolution, when otters numbered close to a million, kelp and tree forests worked to reduced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There were no cars, and very few coal mines. There were some one billion people. Today there are seven billion people. Cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships all spew carbon dioxide into the air. Methane producing cattle needed to feed growing populations is increasing, and will continue as third world nations develop.

Did the depletion of otters, resulting in reduction of kelp forests, contribute to climate change over the last century? Scientists agree global warming has occurred over the last century and has accelerated in recent decades. Could the seemingly simple depletion of otters contributed to the changing climate? Studies by the University of California, Santa Cruz, reported September 7, 2012 that kelp forests can absorb 12 times more carbon dioxide with otters around than if the plants were subject to sea urchins. UC Santa Cruz professor and co-author of the study Chris Wilmers said “Right now, all the climate change models and proposed methods of sequestering carbon ignore animals. But animals the world over, working in different ways to influence the carbon cycle, might actually have a large impact.”

The UCSC study also stated that otters have been plagued by numerous new problems since the 1950’s. They reported, “The theory is that killer whales used to eat primarily the large baleen whales, and after World War II, there was a tremendous increase in whaling which depleted most of the large baleen whales over much of the north Pacific. So by the 70’s or 60’s there were very few baleen whales remaining.”

The theory states that killer whales switched to seals and sea lions, which they depleted, leaving them to feed on otters. The research from the scientists shows that sea otters are, indirectly responsible for removing $205,000,000 to $400,000,000 dollars’ worth of atmospheric carbon. Wilmers explained “Most of the carbon cycles don’t incorporate animals, certainly - but animals have been largely overlooked because it’s been assumed that they are bit players in the carbon cycle.”

Not only could otters help balance the marine habitat, they also could factor into carbon offset credits. The California Air Resources Board dedicates credits for environmental processes scientifically proven to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases. The board has specified four categories of carbon offsets: forestry management, tree-planting in urban areas, capture and destruction of methane emissions from livestock manure and destruction of coolant gases.

There is a possibility that wetland management could be the next category added to the list. In this case the preservation, expansion and management of kelp forests will be eligible for the credits. This would put the Pacific coastline of traditional otter habitats on notice that it is time for otters to go back to work protecting native kelp forests. As sea otters began their return to southern California kelp beds, they will help rebuild ecosystems in sea urchin barrens, enhancing existing kelp habitats for future generations. If we work with the otters, they are sure to do their part healing the ocean and improving the health of the planet for humans, plants and animals alike. Unfortunately, the otter’s current threatened and endangered status tells us the comeback still has a long way to go, but may be the right mammal for the job of ensuring long-term coastal sustainability. It’s time to bring the sea otters back home.




Please press one of the buttons below to START OVER with Sea Otter History: Page 1 or Return to the History Overview Page.