While it is still considered a rare sighting, don’t be too surprised if a sea otter pops up someday soon along the coast of San Diego.
The California sea otter, an endangered species, is causing a lot of debate between local fisheries and animal rights groups since the removal of a 24 year-old ban on the marine mammal that spanned from Point Conception to the Mexican Border, which was lifted in 2012.
The ban was implemented because even though the charismatic, furry mammals are popular among tourists, they are voracious eaters and the worst nightmares of local urchin divers and the lobster, abalone and squid fisheries.
“If a herd of sea otters were to make it down here, they would wipe out the sea urchin industry,” said Cliff Hawk, the sea urchin commissioner for San Diego. “Sea otters don’t have size limits, they don’t care about quality, they just eat everything.”
A series of lawsuits by environmentalists, due to the fact that the ban was doing more harm than good to the species, eventually succeeded and sea otters are now free to swim into Southern waters without the threat of being captured and returned to a sanctuary.
History of the “no-otter zone”
The sea otter has the densest fur of any animal on the planet, according to Marcia Thissel, a senior animal care specialist at SeaWorld who has been working with sea otters for years. As such, the sea otter was hunted to near extinction for years so its fur could be sold.
The Otter Project estimates at one point there were 16,000 sea otters along the coast of California ranging from the coast of Alaska to Baja California.
In 1911, a ban on hunting the animals was passed with only 1,000 to 2,000 otters remaining worldwide. It took more than 60 years, however, for the species to be classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and they still face a number of ongoing threats, such as overfishing, oil spills and cat feces run off.
Thissel explains how these threats affect the sea otters.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to establish a sea otter colony in 1987. A group of otters was relocated to San Nicholas Island to give them a safe place to repopulate, but it didn’t have the effects wildlife experts hoped to see.
Out of the 140 sea otters relocated to the island, 90 percent of them disappeared, deeming the experimental colony a failure. They would die from the stress of relocation or attempt to swim back to their mainland habitat and be killed by sharks. According to the advocacy group, Friends of the Sea Otter, 36 sea otters made it back to the California coast line.
The original relocation was made to appease different groups, such as the Navy, local fisheries and oil companies, according to Natalie Testa, a former aquarist at the Research Experience and Education Facility in Santa Barbara.
“Big Oil doesn’t want to worry about the legal fees and bad press that comes with an oil spill that affects an endangered species,” said Testa. “The Navy wants to have test sites without filling out all the paperwork that comes with testing in the range of an endangered species.”
To further protect the sea otters, a “no-otter zone” was created from Point Conception to the U.S. border.
Until the ban was lifted in Jan. 2013, the no-otter zone remained otter-free allowing local fisheries and urchin divers a chance to harvest without competition from the sea otters.
Over the course of the 24 years, lawsuits were filed against the wildlife service by both the California Sea Urchin Commission and the Friends of the Sea Otter for different reasons. The wildlife commission didn’t enforce the no-otter zone strictly enough and the Sea Urchin Commission sued. Friends of the Sea Otter filed lawsuits because the wildlife commission didn’t act to remove the zone as they had originally intended.
Eventually, on Dec. 18, 2012, wildlife services signed a final rule that officially put an end to the management zone.
In California today, there are approximately 2,800 sea otters. But the only place to see Pacific Sea Otters in San Diego is at SeaWorld, the only facility equipped to care for the animals. The next closest location is the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.
In September, SeaWorld received a pup that had been abandoned by its mother off the coast of Santa Barbara.
MULTIMEDIA: SeaWorld received a sea otter pup that had been abandoned by its mother in September. SeaWorld now has six female sea otters in its care.
Fisheries fear the return of the sea otter
Sea otters and shellfish fisheries do not currently occupy the same areas. Sea otters have mostly remained north of Point Conception, according to Peter Halmay, the president of the San Diego Fisherman’s Working Group.
“The sea otters in the range have decimated the sea urchin and abalone stocks they depend on for food,” Halmay said. “Having exhausted these species they are shifting to other less desirable smaller prey.”
While sea otters have not yet returned San Diego, the impact of sea otters on a marine habitat was documented by abalone fisheries on San Nicolas Island when the colony was established there. The abalone industry all but collapsed.
Over the past 20 years, however, the otter-free waters along the coast provided urchin divers a relatively competition-free kelp bed in which to establish a thriving industry. In San Diego there are fewer than 20 licensed divers collecting sea urchins, but the primary processor in San Diego, Catalina Offshore, employs more than 70 people who process the product.
“The sea urchin fishery industry is very healthy,” Hawk said. “We have one of the most sustainable fisheries due to the fact that we have size limits, moratoriums on licenses — only so many are issued per year.”
Hawk has been renewing his license every year since he was 18 years old. He has spent over half his life diving the waters off Southern California for the spiky red cases containing the golden meat that sea otters love.
MULTIMEDIA: Cliff Hawk talks about his life of urchin diving, the state of the industry today and the dangers of the trade.
In San Diego, red sea urchins are the largest export from the ocean. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Sea Urchin Fishery, San Diego has brought in over 500,000 pounds of urchins every year since 2005. It is the largest landing of all types of commercial fishing in San Diego.
Over the past few years the urchin industry has been one of the biggest opponents fighting the lift of the ban because they have the most to lose.
Studies on the animal’s eating habits have shown that sea otters go after the same urchins that divers target because of their relatively easy location and full size. One study showed that because they harvest the same areas, the return of the sea otter could cause a healthy, thriving fishery to completely collapse.
“They are cute, I will admit it, they are cute,” Hawk said. “But we don’t need to save them, they are doing just fine by themselves.”
Sea otters are indiscriminate feeders, meaning they prey on more than 50 types of sea animals, including sea urchins, crabs, sea stars, abalone, clams, mussels, octopus and fish.
“Sea otters consume 25 percent of their body weight per day; they have a very, very high metabolism,” Thissel said. “They are one of the few marine mammals that don’t have any blubber, so they rely on a high metabolism to keep their body warm.”
Besides the obvious threat of losing its primary catch, the urchin fishers face another problem. Because the sea otter is endangered, once they move into an area a fishermen has been harvesting the fisherman or diver will be asked to move out.
While only three otters have been spotted south of Orange County since 2012, different estimates, including reports created by the abalone and sea urchin commission, points to the “gradual but predictable” migration southward by the sea otter, meaning it’s only a matter of time.
Halmay attended a meeting between different agencies such as the state sea urchin commission, the federal marine mammal commission and various state agencies to try to come up with a solution but had no success.
“While it made some headway it was ultimately destroyed by those who wished to restate their arguments rather than trying to find solutions,” Halmay said.
Testa also says a solution needs to be made before the plausible event of sea otters expanding takes place.
“These are people who have created a life and a career around these fisheries, and it is not fair to simply allow otters to come back and say, ‘Sorry, you no longer have a job,’” Testa said. “We need to find a solution that works for everyone, but you can’t ignore an endangered species either.”