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Shifting Tide: Southern California Sea Otter Ban Lifted

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"Ot-ter! Ot-ter!" That may not have been our daughter's first word but it was among her most thrilled.

We had just walked into the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and had made our way through the crowd to the Sea Otter Exhibit, a multi-leveled display where we were transfixed by the mammal's liquid grace, its corkscrewing motion through the pool. As it spun, dove, and curled up and around, we explained to our riveted two-year-old what we were looking at and pronounced the animal's name. That's when she let loose: "Ot-ter! Ot-ter!"

Memories of her exuberant cry surfaced in mid-December when news came that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had abandoned its 25-year-old ban on southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) residing in Southern California's waters. The ban, an outgrowth of the Reagan administration's aggressive anti-environmentalism, proved once more that if given a chance nature can make a mockery of command-and-control policymaking.

That is not to say that humans are incapable of pushing a species to the brink of extinction (and beyond). The otter almost became, like the passenger pigeon, a byword in North American environmental annals -- a once-prolific species that market hunters wiped out.

The crux of the matter is the marine mammal's luxuriant pelt, a water-resistant fur that contains upwards of 650,000 hairs per square inch, thick insulation necessary for the frigid Pacific waters it calls home. "These animals are very beautiful," observed Georg Wilhelm Steller of the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences in "The Beasts of the Sea" (1751). Because of their beauty, "they are very valuable, as one may well believe of a skin the hairs of which, an inch or an inch and a half in length, are very soft, very thickly set, jet black and glossy." The German-born naturalist studied and hunted sea otters across the northern Pacific, concluding that the species "was incomparable, without a peer; it surpasses all other inhabitants of the vast ocean, and holds the first rank in point of beauty and softness of its fur."

Other 18th-century Russian expeditions, as well as those that the English and Spanish mounted, shared Steller's calculation that this fur-rich creature had an unparalleled market value, triggering a grisly trade. At least initially, sea otters were relatively easy to kill. "They were found there in so great abundance that from the beginning our numbers did not suffice to kill them," Steller recounts about his experience on Bering Island. "They covered the shore in great droves, and as the animal is not migratory, but is born and bred there, they are so far from fearing man that they would come up to our fires and would not be driven away until, after many of them had been slain, they learned to know us and run away."

Aleut hunters. | Photo: N.B. Miller/Wikipedia/Public Domain

After wiping out the otters in the Bering Sea, Russian hunters ventured into the Aleutian Islands in the 1740s; there, and not incidentally, they also brutalized the Aleut people to accelerate the harvest. The payoff seemed to sanction the vicious fury. In the late 1770s, for instance, Captain James Cook's crew killed a number of sea otters in southeastern Alaska and later sold the pelts in Canton for an estimated 1800 percent profit. The news spread rapidly and the slaughter began in earnest.

American vessels shipping out of Boston joined the pursuit of the sea otter, ultimately dominating the exploitation. By the late 1810s, the mammal had been cleaned out of Alaska and much of the coast south to San Francisco Bay. By that time, American fur hunters were annually killing thousands of otters around the Farallon Islands, and so brutally efficient were they that they extirpated the resident population within a decade.

The killing fields shifted south, with the same bloody result. By 1835, when writer Richard Henry Dana came ashore in San Diego during his two years before the mast, the pickings were slim; he and his mates packed the Pilgrim's hold with tens of thousands of cow hide and horns -- and a scant few barrels of otter and seal fur. Within a half century of Cook's expedition, the southern sea otter no longer occupied its kelp-forest habitat along the Pacific Coast, from Alaska to Mexico; as best anyone knew, it was gone forever.

Naturally, only after being decimated, did the sea otter receive a modest form of international protection. It was among the fur-bearing mammals that fell under the rubric of the 1911 Convention between the United States and Other Powers Providing for the Preservation and Protection of Fur Seals, an unwieldy named treaty that contained narrow regulatory aspirations.

Henry Wood Elliot. | Photo: NOAA
Henry Wood Elliot. | Photo: NOAA

Its chief promoter was conservationist and artist Henry Wood Elliot, author of "Our Arctic Province: Alaska and the Seal Islands" (1886), a text that especially focused on the stellar landscapes, indigenous peoples, and unusual wildlife in the then little-known region. Convinced that rigorously enforced regulations on seal and otter hunting would bring back their once-bounteous numbers, in 1905 Elliott encouraged Secretary of State John Hay to coauthor a proposal that six years later served as the basis for the international treaty.

Its provisions, to which Great Britain, Russia, and Japan were the other signatories, granted the United States sole authority to ban pelagic hunting, manage the on-shore killing on the Bering Sea's Pribilof Islands, and granted aboriginal peoples the right to harvest animals for domestic consumption (that is, for non-commercial purposes). Washington's first step was to announce a five-year moratorium on all hunting to allow the seal and otter populations to stabilize, and for the next 30 years the federal government granted hunters access to the islands and established minimum "takes" of these fur-bearing mammals.

Although landmark legislation -- it was the first international treaty to regulate such exploitation, and is credited with establishing a precedent for Fur Seal Act of 1966, which established the Pribilofs as a "special reservation" for the protection of these endangered mammals; and the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibited, with a few exceptions, the killing of threatened and endangered marine mammals in U. S. waters -- the 1911 treaty had no real impact on the southern sea otter; after all, they had been exterminated.

Historical Otter Range beginning in 1938. | Graphic: The Otter Project/Wikipedia/GNU Free Documentation License

Or so everyone thought. Then, in 1938, a small colony was found along the remote Big Sur coast, living in and around the mouth of Bixby creek. From this group of 50, the southern sea otter population has rebounded in fits and starts. Forty years on, it amounted to more than a 1000 animals and in 1977 was formally listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act; this designation offered it protection under federal law and led to considerable research into its life history, habitat requirements, and prospects for recovery.

This essential ecological work received a major boost after the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened its doors in 1984: Its researchers and curators developed exhibits and informational guides that deepened the knowledge of its millions of visitors about the sea otters' plight (and that of other endangered species that inhabit the central California coast). Our daughter was not alone in her enthusiastic response to these remarkably resilient creatures. "Charismatic, furry, and cute," observes historian Connie Y. Chiang in her stellar book Shaping the Shoreline: Fisheries and Tourism on the Monterey Coast, "they became the aquarium's closest thing to a 'celebrity' species."

However celebrated, its newfound status did not protect the sea otter as it slowly began to reinhabit its former territory from Santa Barbara south. The Reagan administration, ever eager to roll back environmental protections that a bipartisan coalition of earlier presidents and congresses had enacted, intervened to restrict its southerly migration. Responding swiftly to complaints from commercial shellfisheries that the sea otter, whose diet includes sea urchins, crustaceans, and mollusks, was in direct competition with their operations, it pushed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to resolve the dispute in the industry's favor.

The agency complied, and in 1986 declared an otter-free zone stretching from the U.S.-Mexico Border to Point Conception, north of Santa Barbara. The only space within that zone that otters could find sanctuary was on San Nicolas Island, which lies within the political jurisdiction of Ventura County but which the U.S. Navy controls as a weapons testing and training facility. All others, if captured, would be relocated outside Southern California.

Kayakers and a Sea Otter pass each other in Monterey Bay. | Photo: Sean Munson/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Otters paid little attention to the niceties of this political compromise; apparently they don't read the Federal Registry where its conditions were posted. Instead they continued to swim south in search of food, shelter, and mates. Those that survived relocation to the central coast -- and not all did -- headed south once more.

It took time, and a more favorable political climate, to rescind the flawed 1986 otter-free-zone ruling. In August 2011, the USFWS proposed removing the regulations that governed the movement of the southern sea otter because "the southern sea otter translocation program has failed to fulfill its purpose," acknowledging, too, that "our recovery and management goals for the species cannot be met by continuing the program." After 14 months of public comment, hearings, and evaluation, on December 19, 2012, the federal agency officially stopped enforcing the unenforceable regulation, allowing "southern sea otters to expand their range naturally into southern California waters."

Reestablishing themselves will not be easy. There is the potential for deadly interactions with commercial shellfish operators, as has happened even in protected preserves. Throughout its current range, moreover, infectious diseases and viruses, among other debilities, are causing a higher level of mortality than had been predicted, inhibiting population growth, a pattern that may well continue as sea otters press into the Southland. Their survival will be compromised further by the very waters through which they will swim: The effluent that streams into Santa Monica Bay, out of San Pedro and Long Beach harbors, and from the many polluted rivers and creeks that flow into the Pacific, will undercut their life chances.

Despite these and other obstacles, I would not bet against this compact, powerful, and well-groomed mammal. After all, sea otters somehow have survived in the face of more than a century of murderous human exploitation. So if someday soon you spot one or two cavorting among kelp rafts off Malibu, Palos Verde, or Crystal Cove, you'll know what to shout: Ot-ter! Ot-ter!

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

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