HJR 26, a non-binding state resolution calling the federal government to implement population control of southeast Alaskan sea otters, died in the committee in the Alaskan state Senate. The bill was essentially in support of HR 2714, a federal bill that promotes increased hunting of Alaskan sea otters, which remains alive in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Management of sea otter populations can only be done at the federal level.
The resolution claimed that the 12% sea otter population growth rate reported for Southeast Alaska in 2011 is out of control and negatively impacting commercial fisheries for geoducks, red sea urchins, and sea cucumbers, among others. In fact, population growth in Southeast Alaska is historically low – prior to the 1990s, population growth rates up to 23% were normal in Southeast Alaska.
There is no doubt that fisheries will need to adjust as sea otters recover and return to their historic range, but sea otters are a net benefit for the entire ecosystem. Since the extinction of the sea otter in Southeast Alaska (a direct result of the fur trade in the 1800s) populations of shellfish have exploded without any major predator, causing havoc on the coastal environment. Sea urchins in particular have devastated coastal kelp forest ecosystems due to their insatiable appetite for the roots that connect kelp to the ocean floor. As a result, large swaths of kelp forests (the “rain forests of the sea” because of their role in supporting traditional habitat and nurseries for a wide diversity of sea life) have been mowed down and replaced with comparatively lifeless ocean expanses termed “urchin barrens.”
As sea otters return, so will the fish that rely on kelp for some part of their life cycle. Pacific Herring, which use kelp as nurseries for commercially viable roe, are part of a multi-million dollar fishery in Southeast Alaska that is likely to benefit from a return of sea otters and kelp forests. Other species of rockfish will also benefit from a flourishing kelp habitat again. Kelp can also slow coastal erosion and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The resolution passed the state House of Representatives on March 19th and was expected to sail through the Senate. Thanks in large part to staunch resistance by the Alaskan Wildlife Alliance the resolution was indefinitely stalled in committee for this legislative session.
Though the Alaskan state resolution has at least been stalled until the next legislative season, the binding and much more dangerous HR 2714 remains in the U.S. House of Representatives. HJR 26 could easily be resurrected in the next session as well.
HJR 26 was a non-binding state resolution that recommends the federal government to essentially adopt H.R. 2714 – a bill that would open up the world market for commercially produced sea otter fur.
H.R. 2714 remains alive in the U.S. Congress.
On Monday March 26th, Friends of the Sea Otter sent me to advocate on behalf of the voiceless sea otters at the annual Ocean Day event held at the California State Capitol in Sacramento and hosted by Environment California. The day for FSO would be spent educating and informing state lawmakers about sea otters (in particular, the no-otter zone), the ocean environment, and how California can continue to lead the way in protecting our coastal resources.
Early in the morning, dozens of passionate ocean advocates gathered in conference room 444 for a kick-off speech by ocean champion Assemblymember Julia Brownley (D – Santa Monica). Her stories of fighting for state-wide bans on plastic bags and styrofoam take-out food containers, both of which are extremely harmful to the ocean environment and cost millions a year to clean up, energized and motivated us for a full day of ocean advocacy – especially since coffee was not allowed in that room (the room is almost 150 years old, after all!).
Though as important as they are, sea otters were just one topic my particular group (all attendees were broken into several themed groups) discussed with California state legislators and their staff. Working with Oceana, the Surfrider Foundation, and Save Our Shores, I had a
chance to partake in a discussion covering a wide variety of ocean issues, from plastic pollution to marine protected areas (did you know that by the end of this year, all of California’s coast will be protected by a network of new underwater parks?!) and California’s potential first official state marine reptile (the leatherback sea turtle). Tackling all of these issues is important to create a healthy ocean habitat, for sea otters and other wildlife as well as to preserve the economic value of the ocean itself.
When we weren’t lost in the web of hallways and elevators that is the capitol building, we spent our time talking up the issues with legislators who were very receptive to hearing our messages. One thing I have noticed by working on ending the no-otter zone these past years is that just by educating and informing people that this exclusion zone exists almost always guarantees their support, and I was pleased to find this rule held true with lawmakers and their staff in the state capitol. The no-otter zone shocked nearly every office I spoke with and many offered their support to end the no-otter zone and free the sea otter.
By the end of the day we had met with six legislator offices, two legislators themselves, dozens of other ocean advocates, and tasted seafood ice cream provided by Ben and Jerry’s (not for everyone!). Other groups, including the otter-advocates at The Otter Project and our friends at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, worked hard that day too for a combined total of 96 California state legislator offices being informed of ocean issues and our cause. With only 120 total state legislators, we spoke to nearly 80% of the total elected body in Sacramento!
Moving forward from this long day of activism, FSO welcomes more cooperation from important state legislators and our other ocean advocacy friends as we work to protect our coastal habitat for people and wildlife. To learn more about the no-otter zone, please click here and be sure to visit our friends at Oceana, the Surfrider Foundation, and Save Our Shores to learn about the important issues they work on as well.
In a recent editorial published in the L.A. Times, sea otter expert Dr. James Estes urged for science-based policy decisions, alluding to the growing national debate on natural sea otter range expansion and the ensuing conflicts with the commercial shellfish industry, both in southern California and in Alaska.
Often the debate is loosely framed as the “cute and cuddly” sea otters vs. the economic interests of a small group of shellfishers. Dr. Estes suggests reframing the issue and focusing the debate on a more science-based evaluation of the benefits sea otters provide for the coastal marine environment. Estes claims “the seemingly conflicting values of preserving an important element of nature’s biodiversity versus our reluctance to incur the associated costs can be at least partly resolved through a better understanding of the greater ecological services provided by many of these animals.”
Along with being a cultural icon admired by many for their cute appearance, Estes suggests that decision-makers need to account for the many ecosystem services that otters provide to coastal communities. These are tangible economic benefits for society as a whole, rather than short-term profits for a few shellfishers.
Sea otters, for example, are long known to promote the growth of kelp forests by feeding on sea urchins. Without a natural predator to control their numbers, urchins can overgraze kelp forests, sometimes resulting in “urchin barrens” – underwater deserts that are largely devoid of life. Kelp forests, in turn, serve as habitat for many other valuable marine species and play a role in dampening waves and slowing coastal erosion and shoreline recession.
Estes concludes: “An ever-growing body of research shows that the ecological and economic influences of predators in nature, from sea otters to wolves, extend well beyond the things they eat.” Though sea otters receive plenty of well-deserved attention based on their pleasing appearance, focusing on their integral role to a healthy ecosystem and the services that ecosystem provides to mankind is a point worth making when confronted with the narrow economic interests of commercial shellfishers.
FSO is committed to communicating science to the public as well as lawmakers as a way to promote sea otter friendly policy. This has been our central strategy to end the no-otter zone and to oppose further damaging harvests of sea otters in Alaska. FSO hopes that lawmakers today will consider all aspects of the sea otter when forming public policy and welcome otters back to our coastal environment rather than excluding them to protect a select few fishers.
On February 15th, Representative Gallegly (R – Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties) introduced H.R. 4043, a bill that represents a full step backwards in sea otter conservation. Though deceptively titled as legislation that promotes the recovery of the threatened southern sea otter, the “Military Readiness and Southern Sea Otter Conservation Act“ would in fact undermine the current process of ending the antiquated no-otter zone that was established in 1987. The no-otter zone prohibited sea otters from entering coastal waters south of Point Conception (near Santa Barbara), but has failed in its purpose and is currently undergoing the process to be terminated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by this December.
H.R. 4043 requires that termination of the no-otter zone be stalled again while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service complete an “Ecosystem Management Plan.” Under H.R. 4043, an Ecosystem Management Plan would have to “[ensure] the commercial harvest of shellfish fisheries at levels approximating current harvests.” Shellfish harvests in southern California have declined because of over-harvesting by the same groups that would benefit from this bill by requiring a plan that would maintain their current harvest levels. This requirement is essentially a handout to the commercial shellfish industry and a license to continue practicing their irresponsible harvests.
The Ecosystem Management Plan would also have to ensure the recovery of the endangered white and black abalone, though scientists have concluded over and over again that the decline of these species was not due to sea otters. Indeed, the two species can and do co-exist. Because it conveniently supports their goal of opposing sea otter range expansion, the shellfish industry continues to promulgate the unproven belief that otters are the sole cause of the white and black abalone’s decline.
Sea otters, once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were nearly eliminated from California in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only in the past few decades has the species begun to recover, though the recovery has not been without its struggles. The latest survey found the population had declined by 3.6% to 2,711 animals. There is general consensus that, in order for the species to confront the varied obstacles it faces (from pollution and disease to food limitation), it must be allowed to naturally expand its range.
Sea otters should be allowed to swim freely, unobstructed by special interests. H.R. 4043 is no more than a veiled tactic aimed at obstructing the termination of the no-otter zone and securing a restriction on the sea otter’s natural range while giving a handout to the shellfish fisheries. Halting natural range expansion would defeat the well-studied environmental benefits, economic gains and jobs associated with tourism, sea otters, and a balanced and healthy ecosystem. H.R. 4043 is bad for otters, bad for jobs, and bad for the environment. It’s time to stand up to the obstructionists and end the no-otter zone.
Last year sea otter advocates won an important victory to keep the California Sea Otter Fund tax check-off option on state income tax forms. This fund, financed by tax payers, is an important financial lifeline that supports critical sea otter research.
Since 2009, scientists have been working to understand why the southern sea otter population has started to decline. In order to provide answers that can help to reverse this trend, Californian taxpayers supported the California Sea Otter Fund through voluntary donations on the state income tax forms. The Fund, divided equally among the California Coastal Conservancy and the California Department of Fish and Game, currently supports vital research seeking to understand the identified correlation between coastal pollution and sea otter populations.
To accomplish this task, researchers compare random samples of tagged sea otters from the polluted waters near relatively densely populated Monterey coastline and the near pristine waters off the coast of sparsely populated Big Sur. By comparing patterns of disease, the exposure to contaminants, physiological condition, behavior, diet, survival and reproductive success between these two contrasting regions, researchers are discovering beginning to understand the relationships between near-shore water quality, pollution, nutritional deficiencies and sea otter population health. For more information on current sea otter studies, click here.
Though legislation last year ensured the possibility of the Sea Otter Fund to appear on California income tax forms, each year the Fund must “prove its popularity” by attracting a minimum amount of donations.
In 2012, the minimum contribution level is $260,890, and any amount, small or large, will help to reach this minimum. Here’s how you can make your contribution:
- When filling out your 540 form, look for line 410 labeled CA Sea Otter Fund, under Contributions. Fill out whatever amount you wish to donate.
- If owed money by the state, whatever amount you contribute to the CA Sea Otter Fund will be deducted from your refund.
- If you owe taxes, whatever amount you contribute should be added to your check you make out to the State
Every donation to the Fund is important, even if it is as low as $1. So please remember sea otters on tax day and consider a donation to the California Sea Otter Fund.
Though 2011 was officially the year of the rabbit (according to the Chinese calendar), we’d like to think “The Year of the Sea Otter” would be just as fitting. This past year, Friends of the Sea Otter has made great gains toward conserving our favorite keystone species and ensuring its future survival and prosperity.
At the beginning of the year FSO partnered with Defenders of Wildlife, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Ocean Public Trust Initiative (a project of the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project) to assess and comment on the Draft Recovery Plan for the Southwest Alaska Distinct Population Segment of the Northern Sea Otter. FSO supports an ecosystem-based approach to reversing the declining trend of the southwest population and recognizes the importance of a solid recovery plan. To that end, we urged the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider all aspects of the Southwest Alaska population’s decline and to reflect on the causes for increased orca predation on sea otters.
FSO began the Yampah Island Project, a partnership with the Elkhorn Slough Foundation and the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve to monitor the unique sea otter behavior within the inland waters of the slough for research, education, and outreach efforts. The Project includes the construction of two remote-controlled cameras mounted on self-sustaining monitoring platforms that will broadcast live video feeds of the otters to the internet and the Elkhorn Slough Visitor Center. These cameras will act as unobtrusive windows into the natural lives of sea otters living in remote areas of the slough that are normally only accessible by boat.
In June and October, FSO hosted meetings with our members in Monterey to explain our current projects and solicit feedback. Those members who attended were not only enthusiastic about the current trajectory of the organization, but also very willing to help increase FSO’s outreach and education capacity. Many are now active volunteers for Friends of the Sea Otter who engage the community on behalf of FSO and continue to work for the recovery of the species.
During the summer FSO began a grassroots campaign to end the No-Otter Zone off the coast of Southern California in response to the release of a revised draft supplement to the environmental impact statement (DSEIS) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). In the DSEIS, FWS proposed ending the No-Otter Zone and leaving those otters currently living within the zone untouched. Thousands of our members supported the proposed decision by writing letters to FWS and attending public hearings, vastly outnumbering those few fishing interests that oppose the recovery of the species.
In September the State of California officially announced that the Sea Otter Fund would appear on the 2011 California State Income Tax form. The Fund is an important financial source for researchers working at the California Department of Fish and Game and the California Coastal Conservancy who perform studies on the southern sea otter. The Fund is supported solely through voluntary contributions of tax refunds by checking the appropriate box on California State Income Tax forms. This was an important victory – over $330,000 was raised in 2011 alone.
Sea Otter Awareness Week was held between September 25 and October 1, 2011. FSO partnered with Monterey Bay Kayaks to offer members discounts on kayak rentals to view sea otters in their natural habitat in Monterey Bay and the Elkhorn Slough. We also participated in “Otter Days” at the Monterey Bay Aquarium by engaging aquarium visitors and discussing sea otter issues and ways the general public can help ensure the recovery of the species.
In November, FSO began its campaign to block H.R. 2714, a bill that would legalize a new fur trade based on the harvesting of Alaska’s sea otters. The bill would legalize the sale of unaltered sea otter pelts to non-natives and further incentivize sea otter harvests, possibly undoing all the progress sea otters have made in Alaska. We are seeking members and the general public to write to their legislators and oppose the bill when it comes to a vote in the House of Representatives.
Throughout the winter, FSO engaged the public at numerous events ranging from the premier of Otter 501 (a documentary by Sea Studios that focuses on a rehabilitated otter pup from the Monterey Bay Aquarium) to a fundraising gala held by Spector Dance to promote their new performance titled Ocean and a Community Day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. By maintaining a constant presence in the community, we hope to inspire our fellow neighbors to do their part for the sea otter.
Finally, near the end of the year, FSO began to reach out to sea otter researchers and organizations to connect our volunteers with opportunities to spot and observe sea otters in the wild while making meaningful contributions to current sea otter research and census efforts. This would add to the important efforts of FSO volunteers that are already actively working with the California Department of Health in collecting water samples in sea otter habitat to analyze for biotoxins. Details on what this otter spotting volunteer program will entail will come in early 2012.
As you can see, this past year has been an active year for FSO, our members, and sea otters. Looking forward, we can expect another vigorous year in 2012. The Yampah Island Project is only just getting started and we look forward to having our first look through the remote monitoring stations by the end of next year. We also look forward to continuing our work with stakeholders and partners to ensure the Fish and Wildlife Service ends the No-Otter Zone without harming sea otters at San Nicolas Island. Our campaign against the bill that would legalize a new fur trade in Alaska has only just begun, and we expect to hit the ground running with a new Otter Spotting volunteer program in the Monterey Area early next year.
To that end, we cannot continue our vital work without your support. FSO relies heavily upon the generosity of our members as we work to ensure the survival and recovery of all sea otters. Please consider making a contribution today that will go toward our current and future projects and programs and help us save the sea otter.
Black abalone cluster together in a rocky, intertidal crag on San Nicolas Island. Photo by: David Witting, NOAA Restoration Center.
On November 28th the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) designated 360 square kilometers of California coast up to a depth of 6 meters as critical habitat for the black abalone.
This is great news for not only black abalone, a species whose numbers have declined rapidly in the last few decades and is listed under the Endangered Species Act, but it is also great news for the entire Californian nearshore ecosystem. Designating habitat as critical goes beyond the normal protections afforded an individual species that is listed under the Endangered Species Act. By protecting the species’ habitat and designating it as critical, the NMFS is protecting not just habitat currently occupied by black abalone, but also potential habitat not currently occupied but into which the species can expand and recover.
Once a habitat is listed as critical, any federal project (or projects that receive federal assistance or require federal permits) that affect the habitat must be identified, assessed, and its impacts mitigated if possible. For example, if an agricultural operation uses pesticides requiring a federal permit, they must prove that their operations will not negatively affect the species or the designated critical habitat and prevent black abalone from expanding their range. This is a huge step toward safeguarding the marine ecosystem for not only black abalone, but for other wildlife that call the nearshore ecosystem their home as well, such as sea otters.
Southern sea otters, also listed under the Endangered Species Act, have long been blamed by fishing groups for the rapid decline of black abalone. These groups have often used the decline of the black abalone as a reason for restricting the sea otter’s range. They claim that sea otters, some of which prey on black abalone as a part of their natural diet, are the main driver of the black abalone’s decline in California. The NMFS reconfirmed, in their response to comments on their proposed rule to declare critical habitat for black abalone, that sea otters and are not a main driver of the black abalone’s decline. In particular, the NMFS claimed:
- Sea otters were absent from southern California during the widespread decline of black abalone in that region
- The current last foothold for black abalone (i.e. central and north-central California habitats) directly overlaps with the current range of sea otters
- One of the only places in southern California where black abalone populations have been increasing and where multiple recruitment events have occurred since 2005 (i.e. San Nicolas Island) is also the only place south of Point Conception where a growing population of southern sea otters exists, indicating that black abalone populations can recover and remain stable in the presence of sea otters.
Based on the best available science, sea otters are not to blame for the black abalone’s decline. In fact, the NMFS claims that historical overfishing and poaching, along with disease, are the prime culprits for the decline of the black abalone.
Though critical habitat for black abalone is a good step in the right direction, incredibly important species like sea otters are still struggling to survive in the increasingly polluted Californian coastal waters. Now is the time to celebrate for the additional protections afforded our coastal ecosystem through this designation, but Californians should remain vigilant in the fight for a healthy marine environment. Write your representatives to let them know you support a clean coastal environment so that wildlife, like the black abalone and the sea otter, can thrive.