FORT BRAGG, 6/24/23 — Topics to avoid in Noyo Harbor include religion, politics and… sea otters.
Fishermen argue that bringing back otters would destroy the local abalone, crab and urchin industries. Environmentalists say otters belong off the Mendocino Coast and could make its entire ecosystem healthier.
This same debate over whether otters should be brought back to the Mendocino Coast has raged hot for a half century. Evidence now shows that both sides could be right.
Fast forward to 2023, with the abalone population decimated and the purple urchin taking over vast areas of tidepools and nearshore seafloor. Would sea otters make this bad situation better or worse?
That’s a question that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) would like to get input on at an open house in Fort Bragg on Monday from 12 -3 p.m. at the Discovery Center at Noyo Center for Marine Science, 338 N. Main Street.
At the open house, there will be stations set up where people can get information on the federal process, the otter and related species, challenges to the offshore ecosystem, the Noyo Center, how to comment, and ways to keep up on what’s happening. There will not be speeches by the public.
It is one of 16 open houses being held in June in the coastal Pacific Northwest. This is part of a federal process to study the broader impacts of reintroducing the sea otter to areas of its range where it has been extirpated for more than a century. There is no plan currently to bring back otters to the Mendocino Coast. The focus for now is on the California coast south of the San Francisco Bay and the state of Oregon.
There have been recent efforts to move otters north from where they live in Central California, but those have been thwarted by an increased great white shark population, now a major factor in all otter plans. Great whites don’t even eat otters, they bite them and spit them out. Also, the area between Monterey and San Francisco doesn’t have sufficient offshore rocks and islands that otters need to march north, federal studies show.
What happened to otters?
Otters are not the only members of the weasel family largely killed off by the fur trade. Another effort is underway to put the Pacific Fisher cat on the threatened species list. And a recovery plan for endangered Humboldt Martens may be released. Point Arena beavers are currently an endangered species but their status is being reviewed.
Russian fur trading ships led the way in the 19th century in annihilating the sea otter, a weasel that lives entirely in the ocean and eats huge amounts of invertebrates, including crab, abalone, clams, mussels and oysters.
Starting in the 1700s, the fur trade killed off sea otters in a half circle around the globe from Hokkaido, Japan to Baja California. All maritime nations participated, indulging in an unrestricted worldwide sea otter massacre that pushed the species to the edge of extinction throughout its range by 1911, when only thirteen small, hidden populations of a few dozen individuals survived. At the peak of trade, most of the furs were exported to China, where otter pelts were prized among the upper classes and otter clothing was a huge fad.
Japan, Canada, Russia, and the USA signed a treaty in 1911 that banned sea otter hunting. By then, the otters were all gone anyway: No otters survived in the continental USA apart from one hidden population off Big Sur. The treaty also stopped all open water seal hunting, at a time when seals were also being hunted to the point of near-extinction.
Fur hunters killed off most of Northern California’s forest weasels, including martens and fishers. They also killed much of the mink and beaver populations. What hunters didn’t take, logging of forest habitat did. But river otters managed to survive, and are a common sight in inland creeks and rivers and along the Mendocino Coast. People often think they are seeing a sea otter because river otters like to hunt in the ocean as well as in rivers. River otters fish in the ocean, but their fishing trips are much like those of humans — one afternoon is enough. Because they lack the thick coats of their sea otter cousins, the ocean is too cold for them to live there full time. Sea otters are nearly twice as big as river otters.
California sea otters are a distinct subspecies called Southern Sea otters, smaller than the Northern Sea otters that live from Oregon to Alaska. There is also the Russian or Asian Sea otter. These three subspecies live in a continuous arc and comprise one of only two species of otters that live in the ocean, the other being the Marine otter of Chile and Argentina, which is really a river otter that adapted to the ocean and can go both ways. There are river otters on every continent but Oceania and Antarctica. River otters eat fish, invertebrates and also birds, including domestic ducks and chickens. Sea otters feed almost exclusively on invertebrates, not fish or birds.
Why did the hunters pass on the river otter?
River otters were never wiped out because they are too hard to find, their ranges too spread out and their fur not as valuable. Cal Poly Humboldt (State) University has a river otter counting and assessment program driven by citizen science. This reporter has participated in the program as otters visit the pond on my property in Cleone on a semi-regular basis. “The river otter (Lontra canadensis) is a key bio-indicator of the health of our environment as they sit at the top of this water-based food chain,” according to a summary of the Humboldt effort by professor Jeff Black. “Unlike most otter habitats around the world, it is thought that the Pacific north coast still supports a thriving otter population,” said Black’s online page. Black also studies the Humboldt Goose, the Barnacle Goose and Stellar’s Jay.
Sea otters have the most dense fur of any animal, with as many as a million hairs in a square inch of their pelt, protecting them from frigid seas but making them highly desirable as fur even today. Adult human heads, for example, have roughly 100,000 hairs total even before hair loss. Sea otters are among a small number of animals known to use tools, diving to obtain both rocks to smash with and a shelled invertebrate to crush.
What will happen at Monday’s open house?
The open house follows up on a federal assessment of returning otters to Northern California and Oregon, a plan passed into law by Congress last year. The law demands a deeper study into whether this unique native species should be reintroduced to its range. The process, completed in summer 2022, found that bringing back otters would benefit all species — with the possible exception of human fishermen.
The assessment states, “On the basis of our evaluation of the biological, socioeconomic, and legal aspects of reintroduction, we conclude overall that the reintroduction of sea otters to northern California and Oregon is feasible. The ultimate success of reintroduction, however, would require additional work to overcome some challenges, particularly in the socioeconomic sector.”
Otters have already been reintroduced and made comebacks in Russia, Alaska, most of Canada and Washington state.
A second, seemingly contradictory, one-year federal process is underway, to remove the threatened status that California sea otters have enjoyed since 1977. Federal regulators found validity in the urchin industry’s claims that the California (Southern) sea otter has recovered, despite being absent from most of its range. Information will be released following a one-year study that concludes in late August: Federal Register: Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 90-Day Findings for Four Species
How can these two processes be going on at once?
The urchin industry successfully argued that the biggest threat to sea otters — spills from offshore oil drilling — has been largely eliminated in California due to bans on additional drilling areas and safety practices in the California offshore drilling process. For many years, it was feared that one oil spill like the one that happened in Santa Barbara in the 1970s could wipe out most of the recovered otter population. Otter numbers have passed the 3000 count in Central California, a number set as the target for their return.
“In 2018, the southern sea otter population index exceeded 3,090 for the third consecutive year, meeting the threshold for delisting consideration. However, that number has fluctuated, not risen, since,” the assessment states.
Reasons the California sea otter may be kept on the threatened species list include lack of genetic diversity and the much smaller area they now live in than their traditional range, the entire coast. Although this is a different federal process, members of the public are encouraged to ask about both at the Open House.
The reintroduction of the sea otter proves to be an even more controversial topic than bringing back wolves. Those involved say bringing back otters to their entire range is more on a par with reintroducing the grizzly bear. California grizzly bears, which once numbered more than 10,000, were all exterminated by Spanish and American settlers between 1848 and 1922.
At that time, scientists and fishermen believed California (southern) sea otters were extinct. Today’s population of California sea otters are the descendants of a single colony of about 50 otters discovered near Bixby Creek Bridge in March 1938 by Howard G. Sharpe, owner of the nearby Rainbow Lodge on Bixby Bridge in Big Sur.
The massive die-offs of Northern California and Oregon giant kelp forests, primarily caused by hungry, out of control urchin populations, led to the starvation of the abalone and declines of other nearshore species. Studies have now shown that otters could help keep kelp forests alive. Another important role that otters play is keeping sea grass healthy. Seagrass beds have also suffered huge declines, as well as the fish, mollusks, and crustaceans that live in them. Seagrass beds have been weakened by ocean pollution, followed by destructive slugs —which sea otters eat and thus restore the life-giving seagrass, which also sequesters a large amount of carbon.
How much could sea otters help an ocean compromised by a century of reckless pollution and overfishing? The Biden Administration’s assessment seems stuck on finding an answer in conventional wisdom about the environment — either make it off-limits to humans or allow fishing.
Could environmentalists and fishermen both have it wrong about sea otters? Yet scientific studies have shown that humans were a key part of the environment for 10,000 years of harmonious living between otherwise seemingly incompatible species such as abalone, crab, and sea otters.
Native Americans were the stewards of sea otters and their invertebrate prey for millenia, only to see the fur traders and European settlers annihilate the majority of mammal species they had lived with and hunted sustainably.
The otter population has exploded in Alaska since it was reintroduced there in the 20th century, crimping the crab fishery and causing some Natives who had favored reintroduction to rethink their positions.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not make any recommendation in this report as to whether reintroduction should take place. That will depend on many factors, including input such as at Monday’s Open House in Fort Bragg. If the initiative were to move forward, additional information and input by local communities, environmental groups, fishermen and others would be needed to help inform any future reintroduction proposal, a summary of the process states.
Meanwhile, a serious effort is underway that could bring sea otters back to Oregon. That is led by the nonprofit Elakha Alliance, but no similar public effort is underway in California.
There have long been reports that the Monterey Bay Aquarium will seek to restore otters to San Francisco Bay as soon as feasible. These efforts are encountering less resistance from fishing organizations than in the past, backers say.
If sea otters returned to the Northern California coast, there would be big impacts on crab fishing, abalone populations and sea urchin numbers, scientists and fishermen agree. But recent scientific studies have hinted that if the sea otter does not return, the kelp forest might not recover.
European settlers hit the entire California ecosystem like an atomic bomb, killing off dozens of land species like the plentiful pronghorn and tule elk within a few years of their arrival. Stream-fouling logging and widespread development reduced the salmon to a pittance and endangered local Coho salmon. Abalone were killed off everywhere but north of San Francisco. They survived as a delicacy when only recreational harvesting, not commercial, was allowed from the 1950s forward.
But the cascade of problems created by imbalance became evident in 2013 when the starfish population was hit by wasting disease. This led to the die-off of starfish including the Sun Star, which had been the predator that controlled sea urchins after the fur trade killed off the sea otters. Urchins destroyed the kelp forest, a resource as significant as redwoods. This caused death down the food chain, including wiping out most of the abalone population and ending that lucrative and delicious recreational fishery, which was closed five years ago with no sign that abalone fishing will ever come back.
Now there are urchin barrens where kelp forests rich with mussels, abalone, fish, crustaceans and a wide variety of life once prevailed. These creatures are slowly starving to death, but that could take decades. In the meantime, even the otters will not eat these urchins, as they have no food value. There are efforts by divers up and down the California and Oregon coast to clear these urchin barrens. Comments provided to the federal sea otter process show many think the answer may be otters. Sustainable Native hunting kept many creatures that live with humans from overwhelming all the rest. Modern civilization has finally caught up with Native practices, such as managing forests with periodic fires. Could otter hunting be needed to bring back the balance?
Biologists and government authorities in Alaska actually revived the fur trade to limit sea otters until that was banned by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMMA) in 1972. Alaskan crab fisheries have been decimated by sea otters. Natives in Alaska and Canada have rights to take sea otters but not sell pelts. Some say a hunting season would be needed for otters to coexist with California and Oregon invertebrate fishing.
The assessment passed into law by Congress, the law which led to the open house on Monday, points out the MMMA creates other problems for otter reintroduction, such as an extremely difficult process to adjust and move and “take” the otters once released. Many otter reintroductions have gone awry when otters went looking for their old homes. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is using a process of taking orphaned otter pups and rearing them in captivity without exposure to humans, then releasing them in the wild. From 2002 through 2015, 37 rehabilitated southern sea otter pups that had been raised at the aquarium were released into Elkhorn Slough, an estuary off of Monterey Bay, and closely monitored as part of a special study. This has shown greater promise than relocating homesick adults, but could run afoul of the MMMA.
“The pups were purposely reared with non-releasable female sea otters as surrogate mothers to ensure they were properly socialized and learned essential skills,” the assessment said.
Great whites attack and kill many sea otters but spit them out, apparently not liking the taste after mistaking otters for seals. In fact, many studies have shown the California sea otter has not been able to migrate north from Monterey toward San Francisco Bay for two reasons, great white attacks and lack of enough offshore rocks. Otters don’t live well on straight coastlines and the assessment concludes places like Sonoma and Mendocino counties probably never had a lot of otters and probably won’t support many in the future. In fact, the assessment found that San Francisco Bay, with all its inlets and hiding places, could support more otters than all of the Northern California coast.
Josie Iselin, author of The Curious World of Seaweed, and other books, said objections by the fishing industry may be overstated. She said invertebrates like crab and abalone can live in deeper water, where otters may not be able to dive. How deep otters dive is another unknown. While otters have been observed diving as deep as 250 feet, most don’t go more than 50 feet deep to forage. Abalone are found to a depth of about 150 feet, while crabs can go as deep as 300 feet. But each variety of otters and invertebrates have different habits. More than 150 species of prey have been identified, but otters’ food varies from place to place. One reason there is a desire to broaden their range is to make them more resilient to a wider variety of foods and habitats.
Many answers are emerging about the interrelationship of all the intertidal species and their value to each other and the future of the fisheries and the planet. At a scientific conference in Oregon on the sea otter plan held in October of last year, most of the discussion was not about sea otters but all the creatures that make up the kelp forest. This reporter attended by Zoom. One presentation focused on whales and the surprisingly important role whale feces play in the ecosystem. Scientific studies made since the 1970s documented the steady decline of the kelp forest due to overfishing, extraction of invertebrates, minerals and uses ranging from war games to undersea cables. This didn’t seem as alarming until the system collapsed due to temporarily warmer waters and starfish-wasting disease. But just bringing back the starfish won’t fix a collapsing pyramid.
Iselin has coined the term “resilience mining” for the extractive process that ocean resources have undergone. Putting back just one species in a drained system isn’t usually enough.
“We have had resilience mining from these resources for 100 years. Now, how do we put it back in?” Iselin said in an interview.
The government assessment estimates that the total cost of sea otter reintroduction will range from $26 million to $43 million over a 13-year period. This estimate includes pre-reintroduction habitat evaluation (three years), acquisition and release of sea otters (releases of wild captured otters over five years and/or surrogate reared otters over 10 years), habitat and population monitoring (10 years), and postmortem and oil spill response programs.
“The reintroduction of sea otters to Northern California and Oregon would result in significant conservation benefits to the species, in particular to the threatened southern sea otter, and to the nearshore marine ecosystem,” the assessment concludes.
There is also an effort underway to protect fishers, an inland weasel cousin of otters. Mendocino’s forests are home to rarely seen fishers, including at times on the coast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today agreed to reconsider whether West Coast fishers in Northern California and southern Oregon warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. Fishers are relatives of mink, otters and wolverines, and live in old-growth forests. The Service has until Aug. 21, 2025, to decide whether to protect them after a successful legal action by environmentalists.
The Humboldt marten, a type of fisher, was thought to be extinct until a population was discovered in 1997 and again about a decade later. The Humboldt Marten is a subspecies of the Pacific Marten, which is not endangered.
There is also an effort underway to review the status of the federally endangered Point Arena mountain beaver, a rodent but also hunted nearly into extinction. That five-year process concludes this year but no updates were available. More information here: Species Profile for Point Arena mountain beaver(Aplodontia rufa nigra)