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January/February 2004
Otter Things in California

By David Helvarg

I’m standing on the shore of Monterey Bay, California, one of my favorite places, watching a sea otter grooming himself, diving and resurfacing, swimming on his back, cheerfully tearing the legs off a freshly caught crab with his pointy little teeth.

The Sea Otter has become the unofficial symbol of the Monterey National Marine Sanctuary and a major income earner for gift shops and gallery owners from Santa Cruz to Carmel. You can buy plush otter dolls, framed otter photographs, ceramic otter candy dishes or $2,000 cut glass otters. Which may be why few locals are willing to mention that these terminally cute and cuddly mammals are also voracious predators, eating up to 25 percent of their body weight every day, competing with commercial fishermen for octopus, crab, and urchin. They’re also a species of marine weasel into rough sex.

While effective for grooming their fine pelts or cracking shells against small stones they place on their bellies, the male otters’ arms (legs, whatever) are simply too short for getting a good grip on a mate. So the male gets firm purchase by biting down on the nose of the female before going for a little splendor in the kelp. Afterwards you can often spot the females hauled up on rocks along the shore, their fur matted and their noses bloody. Breeding females are easily distinguished by the scars on and around their black nose leather. Knowing this, it’s hard not to imagine that a female with a heavily scarred nose might get a reputation as an easy otter.

But however you feel about sea otters as role models for America’s youth, we still owe these weasels big time. There used to be as many as a million corkscrewing through the coastal waters of the Pacific from the Russian far-east, along the Alaska coast and all the way down to Baja. Then came the 18th and 19th century fur hunters.

Unlike most marine mammals, sea otters lack a protective layer of blubber and so are dependent on their dense luxuriant fur to keep them warm. They’re constantly grooming themselves to fluff air between their inner and outer layers of fur, the air acting as an additional layer of insulation. Having rubbed sea otter fur (put on display by the Fish and Wildlife Service) I can attest that it makes mink fur, or human baby hair for that matter, feel coarse and grainy by comparison. For generations California coastal Indian tribes kept warm in otter fur wraps with no notable impact on the wild animal population (according to marine archeologists and historians). Things changed, however, when otter fur became a tradable commodity for Russian and American trappers. The result was industrial scale killing and a century-long marine weasel massacre. By the 1820s companies trading otter skins to China for tea, spices, porcelain and silk had decimated the population. While some trappers continued to work the depleted waters of the Pacific, Yankee sealers headed south to the waters off Antarctica where they killed some three million seals, selling their skins to China as fake sea otter.

In California the sea otter was thought to be extinct until 1938 when a raft of some 300 was discovered living along the rugged coast of Big Sur. With the help of an environmental group called Friends of the Sea Otter, and a Fish and Wildlife Service-finding declaring the California otter a threatened sub-species, there was something of a rebound with almost 2,400 animals living along the coast by 1995.

Beginning in the late ‘90s however, the otter population began an unexplained decline of around five percent a year. Suspected causes included the mammals losing out in their competition with commercial fishermen, drowning in fishing traps and nets, being sickened by an unidentified toxin, or some combination of factors. No definitive cause was established.

Wildlife pathologists and vets working at the California Department of Fish and Game Lab in Santa Cruz and UC Davis carried out necropsies (animal autopsies) and studies of the growing number of dead animals, including more than 300 otters that have washed up dead on California beaches since 2001.

What they found is that between 1998 and 2001, disease killed nearly two-thirds of the animals, with 47 percent of the dead in their adult breeding prime. Infected otters were also found to be four times as likely to be eaten by sharks because of confusion, seizures and other disabilities. Among the emerging diseases that have been identified are Toxoplasma gondii and Sarcocystis neurona, which are carried by single celled parasites associated with cat and opossum feces. These diseases can also affect humans (Toxoplasma is why pregnant women are told not to handle kitty litter). So how are these parasites getting into the water? While no definitive links have yet been made to sewage treatment facilities or storm drains, human (and cat) populations have boomed along the coast at the same time California has lost 95 percent of its wetlands including coastal wetlands that can act as filters of pollution. Sea otters also like to dine on crabs, mussels, clams, and endangered (overfished) abalone, all filter feeders that tend to concentrate bio-toxins in the water.

One precautionary approach for people living with cats is to never flush their feces down a toilet but dispose of it in a garbage can (where it will end up in a landfill rather than the ocean). If you live by the shore or in an immediate watershed you might also not let your cat run wild (the birds your predator companion doesn’t kill will also sing their thanks).

Of course cats and opossums can’t take all the blame for an altered marine environment—there’s also massive nutrient pollution from agro-chemicals, factory farms, urban streets, biotoxins, and boat paints. This runoff has seen the recent decline of the California sea otter, even as traps, gillnets and other hazards have been banned. Which is why this December, Sam Farr (D-CA) introduced the Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act, that would create a formal federal program to research otters’ vulnerability to pollution and set up a program of recovery.

Although the otter is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), there is presently no organized effort to stem its decline. In fact since the Bush Administration came into office three years ago, there has been a significant decline both in listings of newly threatened species and in funding of Fish and Wildlife efforts to protect species already at risk. While Farr is proposing spending $25 million on otter recovery, the economic payback of having these keystone predators in the southern California marine ecosystem is demonstrably worth far more. For example, otters eat sea urchins which eat kelp. Left unchecked the urchins would quickly decimate the Monterey kelp forests which act as habitat both for a variety of fish and enthusiastic fish voyeurs (recreational divers). They also act as effective storm barriers for coastal properties worth hundreds of millions. Plus those terminally cute marine weasels are a major tourist attraction in their own right. And while ESA critics used to argue that saving California otters wasn’t that important since there wasn’t significant biological difference between them and their larger and more abundant Alaskan cousins, the Alaskan sea otters are now themselves facing sharp decline due to a number of factors linked to a rapidly changing north Pacific marine ecosystem.

Still, the otter bill can expect stiff resistance from pro-development forces in Congress such as Farr’s fellow Californian, Richard Pombo. A Republican ESA opponent, Pombo heads up the House Resources Committee (it used to be called the Natural Resources Committee until the Republicans took majority control and dropped the word ‘Natural’).

“This (otter bill) is going to take a lot of effort,” Farr told a local reporter in Monterey, going on to suggest that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Of course if you’ve ever heard an otter squeak or seen a group of them rafting up in the kelp, or watched them dive and feed—or hope to do so one day—then you know why you ought to raise your voice too.

David Helvarg is the author of Blue Frontier—Saving America’s Living Seas and The War Against the Greens (a revised and updated edition will be out in April with Johnson Books). He is also President of the Blue Frontier Campaign in Washington DC (


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