2011: Year of the Sea Otter

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.

 2011: Year of the Sea Otter

MBA Community Day, Image Courtesy of Mike Baronial, FSO Member

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.

 2011: Year of the Sea Otter

Yampah Island Project

Recently an article was published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel about sea otter activity in the Parson’s Slough, which relates closely to one of FSO’s most recent projects.  Read below to learn further about our Yampah Island Project and to see an example of waht you can find in our up coming Spring 2011 newsletter!

In the spring 2010 edition of The Raft, we published  “Unknown Otters of Parson’s Slough.” In this article Ron Eby of the Elkhorn Slough Reserve described that among the mud flats and tidal creeks of Parson’s Slough, an area about a mile upstream in the Elkhorn Slough complex near Moss Landing, up to 20 sea otters can commonly be seen resting and foraging. Eby has also noted an unusual behavior. Some sea otters appear to be spending more time on land than is typical. FSO is most interested in this behavior, which has been thought rare for Southern Sea Otters. In October 2010 FSO entered into an agreement with the Elkhorn Slough Reserve to establish a monitoring station on Yampah Island. This region, near Parson’s Slough, will be the site of a wireless camera system that will broadcast a live feed to the Reserve’s visitor center. The live feed will also be available to sea otter researchers and FSO members.

One of our goals for this camera is to reduce the need for volunteers to observe otters on site. Video, pictures, and data captured by the monitoring station will allow sea otter researchers to better understand the behavior of our favorite critter without the potential for human disturbance. It will also provide FSO members and Elkhorn Slough visitors the chance to see exactly what the researchers are watching.

Last month, in the Yampah Island area, a Elkhorn Slough Reserve volunteer witnessed the birth of a sea otter pup.

Ron Eby, FSO’s liaison for the Yampah Island Project, reported: “This event has very seldom been observed in the wild.  The mother was hauled out on the pickleweed, then entered the water to give birth.  After giving birth she rested on her back on the mud bank while grooming her pup for the next hour or so.”

“Pictures were taken from over 100 meters away, but if the camera had been installed we might have been able to get some quality pictures and video from close range,” Eby said.

Ron Eby will install the FSO camera sometime in late spring.

To learn more about the Yampah Island project, or to become an official steward of the Yampah Island Monitoring Station, contact info@seaotters.org or visit our website at www.seaotters.org/yampah.html

yampah island1 Yampah Island Project

A female and pup are pictured on the left. With the Yampah Island Monitoring Station FSO hopes to observe sea otters at a much closer range and do so without disturbing them. Picture by Robert Scoles.