The Sea Otter Savvy Program: Respect the Nap!

The Sea Otter Savvy Program: Respect the Nap!

Becoming Sea Otter Savvy

by Friends of the Sea Otter’s guest writer, Gena Bentall, Program Coordinator, Sea Otter Savvy,

For thirteen years as a sea otter biologist, I spent most of the hours of most of my days watching sea otters in the wild. With my telescope on a sandy coastal bluff, cypress covered rocky point, or bustling wharf, I was a distant, secret observer of the lives of sea otters as they went about the business of living: finding food, attending to their insulating fur, raising their pups, and sleeping—at times in the embrace of a frond of kelp and other times seeming so vulnerable adrift on an open sea. But attached to the privilege of insight into the private lives of such a charismatic marine mammal, was a toll I had not anticipated. I must watch, helpless at a distance, the relentless disruption to their natural (and necessary) behaviors by the activities of humans. Together with my sea otter biologist colleagues, I have witnessed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incidents where our recreational activities—kayaking, stand-up-paddling, beachcombing, scuba diving—interrupt the rest, grooming, and foraging of sea otters. I have seen pups frantic as they are separated from their mothers by a well-intentioned family on kayaks who likely would have been horrified to know the trauma they caused. I have seen one raft disturbed time after time in a single day with just enough time to groom their wetted fur and settle into the kelp before the next group of kayaks comes through and flushes them again. I’ve been asked, “If the disturbance is so bad, why don’t they just go somewhere else?”

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Sea otters, with their high metabolisms and inability to sufficiently store energy (they do not have the blubber layer seals and whales have), are very dependent on the availability of the marine invertebrate prey upon which they feed for survival day to day. Mothers rearing pups find it especially risky to move to an unfamiliar place, away from human disturbance, to find enough food for themselves and a growing pup. They must adapt, or risk their own life and that of their pup. As a bystander to this, knowing the potential cost to the otters about whom I felt so passionately, I wondered what to do to help.  While every person engaging in marine activities should understand the federal and state laws protecting sea otters and other marine life, it is impractical to expect law enforcement to curtail the widespread disturbance that occurs daily in some areas.  Shouting at errant kayakers from shore seemed weak and ineffective. It left my voice hoarse, and my disposition unsatisfied that I had solved the larger problem: that, as a community, we need a better, stronger ethic of respecting our wildlife neighbors.

In spring of 2014, at the biennial Southern Sea Otter Research Update Meeting, at Long Marine Laboratories in Santa Cruz, some of the most influential sea otter agency and organization representatives convened a special working group to address the issue of disturbance to sea otters by human marine recreation activities. It was here that the idea of a program dedicated to creating awareness of the unique vulnerability of sea otters to disturbance and fostering an ethic of good stewardship, was conceived. As a group we agreed that most disturbance is the result of lack of awareness rather than intent to cause harassment. Most people paddling up to a raft of wild sea otters have little understanding of their behavior, no recognition that their actions may be the cause of disturbance, and no awareness they are neither the first, nor last, kayak these otters will encounter that day. Through the collaborative efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Friends of the Sea Otter, and, the concept of this new, outreach-based program, Sea Otter Savvy, was developed. Sea Otter Savvy received our first funding in fall of 2015 and launched shortly thereafter. I am proud and excited, having been appointed Program Coordinator, to have an opportunity to translate what I have learned as a sea otter biologist into effective strategies for creating a safe and more peaceful coexistence where the favorite places of otters and humans overlap.

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In our first months we have activated a Citizen Science program with volunteers in two central coast counties (Monterey and San Luis Obispo) in the field collecting data on sea otter activity as it relates to many potential sources of disturbance. In September of 2015, Sea Otter Savvy convened and hosted an unprecedented summit of the best and brightest folks on the coast who are working to reduce disturbance to a variety of coastal wildlife. Representatives from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Audubon Society, LiMPETS, Seabird Protection Network, MPA Collaborative Group, and many others joined together at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories to identify disturbance issues, come up with solutions, and foster collaboration.  Collaboration springing from this summit continues, and Sea Otter Savvy is leading teams planning Wildlife Awareness Workshops in Morro Bay and Monterey. Our first deployment of outreach materials is imminent, and we are poised to launch our Be Sea Otter Savvy kayak decal, which will provide guidelines for responsible viewing to those renting kayaks along the central coast. Look for our decals soon on the fleet of Monterey Bay Kayaks in Monterey and Moss Landing! We are excited to implement many more ideas and strategies in the coming months!

If you are lucky enough to live along the Central California coast, you have chosen a home where your neighbors are not only human, but a rich assortment of coastal and marine wildlife. Here, you share space with sea otters who, with their powerful role in maintaining the health of our near shore communities, are seashore superheroes. They are esteemed neighbors, and often the best we can do to be neighborly is give them the space they need to do the things they need to do to survive. We hope you will join Sea Otter Savvy in promoting the respectful sharing of space with our wild neighbors: know, follow, and share guidelines for safe viewing of sea otters and all kinds of wildlife, model responsible behavior when you are on the water, and foster an ethic of respect and empathy towards all in our community, human and non-human.  The next time you see a peacefully resting sea otter, consider how you would like to be treated: Respect the nap!

Learn more about the Sea Otter Savvy program at!


Not Again! When Will We Learn?

Not Again! When Will We Learn?

On May 19th, a tragic  event unfolded along the Santa Barbara coastline that serves as a serious reminder to the world – oil spills and wildlife don’t mix.  Needless to say, oil spills’ impacts reach farther than just killing wildlife.  They close beaches, put livelihoods on hold, minimize ocean recreation, and they simply scar the land, ocean and its inhabitants, impacting people who come to enjoy these special areas.

Friends of the Sea Otter knows all too well the deadly consequences oil spills have upon sea otters due to the Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred just slightly more than a quarter decade ago in 1989.  Sea otters die of hypothermia or ingesting the oil, which then gets into their internal organs and causes damage.  These similar impacts happen to other animals.

The deadly toll in this recent oil spill includes marine birds, marine mammals, other marine vertebrates, and marine invertebrates.  It is so disheartening to see the images flooding the news, social media, other media sites of oiled animals!

As of Thursday, June 4, 173 birds have been collected – 58 live, 115 dead – and 100 mammals – 42 live, 58 dead, and more than 14,000 gallons of oily water mixture has been collected.

There have been many things that have come up as to why this happened and why the initial response was inadequate.  These are all important things to address.  What is more important is the constant goal of preventing it from happening in the first place.  One area of emphasis is the need to move away from oil exploration and development in sensitive habitats like this.  Problems are always going to happen with these methods of extracting oil.  We need to focus on alternative energy and put our foot down in saying enough is enough.  We should have learned from the Gulf Oil Spill from five years ago.  We had ample time to learn from that tragic event, and we haven’t. And, until we really say “No More!”, we will continue to get news reports about these tragic, yet preventable events. Let’s learn this time and not repeat historic mistakes like these.

USGS Report Shows Stagnant Population for Sea Otters

The U.S. Geological Survey’s spring census report on sea otter populations was released today. Signs show that the population index of sea otters has increased compared to 2010, however not to the levels we would like to see.  The USGS lists this year’s population index for the southern sea otter at 2,792, an almost 2% increase in the marine mammals’ population index since 2010.

Although a halt in the decrease of the population seems encouraging, these numbers are not strong enough to celebrate. This survey strongly helps reinforce the need to increase the southern sea otters’ range geographically. Small population growth in the center of their geographic range, where maximum sea otter populations exist, suggests that populations could be leveling off.

The survey also reports that 335 otters died last year, close to 12% of the current population. Harmful algal toxins, parasites and infectious diseases, mating trauma, emaciation, bacterial infections, heart disease and boat strikes were some of the main causes of death for the southern sea otter. As well, on top of these causes, the report shows an increase in the number of sea otters attacked and killed by Great White sharks last year, the highest on record. More studies will be needed to determine the recent spike in shark attack rates, but it should be noted that this is an alarming trend.

Friends of the Sea Otter is cautiously optimistic of these results as the increase in population numbers is not yet a sustained trend and recovery is slow. The highest mortality number on record occurred last year, which is still a major concern for us. As well, we are not any closer to discovering the array of reasons for this increase in mortality and we would like to emphasize that disease and pollution are just a piece of this complex puzzle.  Moreover, we need to understand what is causing these populations to stagnate. As studies reveal more information, Friends of the Sea Otter will ensure that our members and followers will be updated accordingly.

H.R. 4043 moves to House floor for vote

 H.R. 4043 moves to House floor for vote

H.R. 4043 strips federal protections for sea otters in Southern California.

An edited version of a bill that would have detrimental effects on sea otters has passed the Natural Resources Committee and is now headed to the House floor for a vote as an amendment to H.R. 4310, the Defense Authorization Act.

The bill, called H.R. 4043 and originally introduced to the House of Representatives by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R – Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties), is worded differently than the original version that was introduced back in February. Friends of the Sea Otter and our partners, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Defenders of Wildlife, succeeded in altering language that would have changed the monitoring program already in place for sea otters at San Nicolas Island.

However, commercial fishing special interests have insisted on replacing text which would have required the federal government to maintain commercial shellfish harvest levels at current levels despite an expanding sea otter range. The new and unprecedented language instead supersedes the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and strips protections for sea otters that live south of Point Conception.

The new language would essentially authorize fishermen to continue irresponsible fishing practices that have been proven to ensnare, trap, and kill sea otters. Normally the protections afforded the threatened southern sea otter under the ESA and MMPA would prohibit “incidental take” that might occur when a sea otter is trapped in large-scale fishing gear, in order to protect the species.

H.R. 4043’s new language, for the first time in history, exempts sea otters in Southern California from these protections under the country’s most landmark wildlife protection laws. This is not only disastrous for sea otters, but the bill also sets a horrible precedent for all species protected under the ESA and MMPA that might prove to be an “inconvenience” to a well-connected special interest group.

The bill will be voted on as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization when it reaches the floor of the House of Representatives.

(5/18/2012) UPDATE: House passed HR 4310, including the Gallegly amendment stripping Southern California’s sea otters of incidental take protections under Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Click to read FSO’s Press Release. FSO will continue to monitor and oppose the Gallegly amendment in the Senate.

Anti-Otter Legislation Dies in Alaskan Senate!

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.

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Hunting rates for sea otters in southeast Alaska in 2010 and 2011 have almost doubled from the average over the past decade. 2011 numbers are estimates from FWS. Year totals are averaged over 3 years.

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.”

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Kelp forests (right) support a tremendous diversity of life. Sea otters play a vital role in maintaining kelp ecosystems by culling sea urchin numbers, which left unchecked would consume kelp to the point of deforesting entire regions, transforming them into urchin barrens (left).

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.

take action2 Anti Otter Legislation Dies in Alaskan Senate!

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.

You can TAKE ACTION now to tell your representative that sea otters are more important than fur and to oppose H.R. 2714. Learn more about Alaskan sea otters.

Seeing the big picture

 Seeing the big pictureIn 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.