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The Luckless Sea Otter

July 2024
7min read

Innocently competing with commercial fishermen along the California coast, a furry, funny marine mammal only recently saved from extinction is in hot water again

Is it possible to begrudge the natural appetite of a rare, fun-loving aquatic mammal that opens shellfish with a rock, takes exemplary care of its pups, and sleeps belly-up on a sea mattress, anchored by a strand of seaweed? Evidently so: commercial abalone fishermen, alarmed by the slow spread of the California sea otter into their customary fishing grounds, indict this animal for destroying abalone beds. They are pressing for legislation to permit the otter to be “harvested” (i.e., hunted under regulation for commercial purposes) or “managed” (relocated or limited in number). Indeed, some eager hunters have not waited for legislation. Despite the fact that the California sea otter, Enhydra lutris nereis , is listed as rare by the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife and is protected by California law within a three-mile limit and by federal law beyond it, dead otters whose bodies show bullet holes or club wounds sometimes wash up on California beaches. Last year the abalone fishermen sought permission to use small underwater explosives in order to suggest to the animals that they would be happier elsewhere. Conservationists are gravely concerned about such tactics, for the ranks of Enhydra lutris nereis are thin—at last count, 1,040.

In pre-Columbian times the clear coastal waters of California were abundant in both sea otter and abalone. The large, single-shelled abalone flourished on kelp, the common floating strands of bottom-rooted brown seaweed, some over one hundred feet in length. The sea otter used the beds of kelp as a year-round home and enjoyed a menu featuring abalone, sea urchins, and other shellfish.

Long before the first European explorer, Juan Rodn’guez Cabrillo, sailed up the Pacific coast, the Indians of the Aleutian Islands had discovered the virtues of sea-otter skins for clothing and adornment. But it was not until 1741, when the Danish explorer Vitus Bering led a Russian expedition to Alaska across the frigid sea named for him, that the sea otter had the ill luck to excite the white man’s interest. Its pelt is warmer and denser than the best Russian sable. And when the explorers were wrecked on one of the Commander Islands off Kamchatka Peninsula, they found the beaches teeming with prospective fur coats for the kings, nobles, and tycoons of Russia, China, and Europe. It was like striking gold.

Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German naturalist who was travelling with the Bering expedition, took time to note a few things about the animals besides their fur: during courtship “the male caresses the female by stroking her, using the fore feet as hands … she, however, often pushes him away from her for fun and in simulated coyness, as it were, and plays with her offspring like the fondest mother. Their love for their young is so intense that for them they expose themselves to the most manifest danger of death. When [their young are] taken away from them, they cry bitterly like a small child and grieve so much that … after ten or fourteen days they grow as lean as a skeleton, and become sick and feeble, and will not leave the shore.”

Unmoved even by such anthropomorphism, Russian hunters swarmed to the islands of the Bering Sea. As their incessant killing wiped out each new hunting ground, the hunters were forced as far as Alaska and the northwest coast of America. By 1780 the Americans and other Europeans had joined the plunder. None of the hunters was interested in displays of mother love—at least, not until the otters began to grow scarce and hard to catch. Then, if they were able to find a baby otter floating untended while its mother dived for food, they would hook the infant with a fishing line and tow it, screaming, behind a boat. When its mother tried to rescue it, she was met with a club.

As the animals became scarcer, the Russians hunted their way down the North American coast and established a trading fort near San Francisco. Here they found themselves in competition with Spanish padres. For the difficult and frigid work of pursuing the otter at sea the Russians enslaved Aleuts, and the Spanish enslaved Indians, meting out heavy punishment and even death if quotas were not met. But in spite of such incentives t he day came when the hunters could find no more otter. In 1841 the Russians abandoned their fort near San Francisco, and by 1867 they were ready to part with the whole of Alaska, selling the United States an “icebox” that they considered empty. Precise body counts are difficult to come by, but all in all perhaps one million or more sea otters were killed along the Pacific coast before the pursuit ceased to be lucrative. By the turn of the century both the Alaskan otter, Enhydra lutris lutris , and its California near-relation were well on their way to extinction. In 1911, by which time the last existing California otter was thought to be long dead, Russia, the United States, Japan, and Canada signed an agreement to protect the fur seal from hunters; the quietly surviving sea otter was included quite accidentally. Two years later the recovery of the Alaskan otter was helped by the establishment of the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where most of Alaska’s thirty thousand animals thrive today. (The State of Alaska in 1962 started cropping its otter population on a limited basis in order to maintain the health of those animals confined to Amchitka Island.)

In California, where no sea otters had been publicly reported for a generation, a herd, or pod, of more than fifty was sighted offMonterey in 1938. Soon afterward about a hundred miles of rugged coastline—from the Carmel River, in Monterey County, to Santa Rosa Creek, in San Luis Obispo County—were designated as a sea-otter refuge. In the last thirty years the animals have been very gradually increasing in numbers (female otters produce one pup every two or three years) and expanding their range northward and southward outside the preserve.

Until the sea-otter renaissance, the succulent abalone, free from natural predation, had been thriving in the same California waters off Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties favored by the sea otter.

As the abalone thrived, so did the commercial abalone industry. Before the Second World War diving for abalone was chiefly an occupation of Japanese-Americans, whp sold their catch to Oriental markets and restaurants. During the war, while the Nisei were in relocation camps, their fishing waters were taken over by Caucasians. With less exotic meat in short supply, abalone steaks came into wider demand, a popularity that continued after the war. The Nisei fishermen returned to find that they were now non grata at the abalone beds.

The sea otter also became non grata to the industry. The catch of legal commercial-size abalone (7¾ inches) off Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties has declined drastically since the prewar high, and those who make a living in the abalone industry in the Morro Bay area of California claim that in recent years the otters have been eating them out of business. Their 1969 harvest was less than a third of what it had been before the otter started to appear in large numbers in their commercial fishing areas. Despite its small contribution to the state’s economy— only $275,000 in 1969—the Morro Bay abalone industry is strongly represented in the California legislature by Senator Donald L. Grunsky, chairman of the powerful Finance Committee.

To represent the sea otter Mrs. Margaret Owings, a leading California conservationist, last year organized Friends of the Sea Otter, with headquarters in Big Sur, California. A rival group, Friends of the Abalone, has been set up in the Morro Bay area; this group rejects suggestions that the industry itself has overfished the abalone or that sport fishermen, pollution, or poaching have much to do with the problem.

There is no denying that the otter has a sizable appetite. A full-grown male easily consumes fifteen pounds of seafood a day—one quarter of its own weight. An authority on the sea otter, Karl Kenyon, wildlife biologist of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, believes that the California otter population has “probably distributed itself so that it is more or less in balance with its food resources” within the arbitrarily limited refuge and is now expanding outside it. There is no question that the sea otter is gradually point where starvation becomes the means of controlling the size of the population.” According to biologist Kenyon, with professional management “there is no reason why we cannot have populations of abalone and populations of sea otter, but certainly not large populations of both in the same area.”

But those who are committed to the untrammelled renaissance of the sea otter point out that the abalone industry need not compete with the otter in the wild—abalone are already profitably cultivated in Japan. Two experiments in abalone aquaculture are currently under way in California, and some fishermen are themselves supporting research in this field.

Meanwhile, one proposal of the Friends of the Abalone is to capture a large number of sea otters and give them to zoos and aquariums. Friends of the Sea Otter is horrified. Very few specimens have been kept in captivity. Karl Kenyon, who has maintained a single male in excellent health for five years at the Tacoma, Washington, aquarium, advises that “conditions in captivity are extremely critical.” Less painstaking efforts than his have ended in the otter’s death.

Some wildlife biologists suggest that as a stopgap measure some otters be transplanted from the abalone belt to other areas within their natural range, such as the coast of Washington or even as far north as Alaska. There is considerable risk of mortality in any untested trapping and moving operation and considerable question whether transplanted animals would adapt successfully. When otters were moved from Amchitka during the nuclear-test explosions last year, there were fatalities of up to 40 per cent.

Friends of the Sea Otter is not opposed to any and all “management” of its protégé, for the group would like it to range over as wide an area as possible. If the otter were confined to the hundred-mile coast of its present refuge, an oil spill or other polluting accident could sweep the entire population into extinction. Even “normal” pollution is peculiarly threatening to the sea otter, which cannot tolerate any contamination of its fur: unprotected by a layer of blubber, the animal depends on air trapped in its fur for insulation. If the fur becomes matted, the otter very quickly loses body heat and dies. Otters spend a great deal of time cleaning themselves.

At Point Lobos State Reserve at the northern boundary of the refuge the sea otter may be seen at home: performing its toilet; snoozing on a bed of kelp, with one strand draped over its stomach as a safety belt; diving for shellfish and then opening the shells by pounding them against a flat rock balanced on its chest. The sharp raps of shell on stone can be heard a mile away. This act is one of the rarest phenomena in nature, for besides man, only apes, a Galápagos Islands finch, and the digger wasp are known users of tools.

The sea otter and the abalone existed in natural balance until man’s gross intrusion upset the order of things. Now it is left to man to decide what the new order will be: the otter, the abalone, or—with luck and loving care—some of each.

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