Persecution of Sea Otters

Otter cam highlights

California sea otter
California sea otter
Sea otters are distinguished by their thick fur, consisting of two layers, an undercoat and longer guard hairs. Due to their beautiful fur, sea otters in California are a threatened species due to the hunting for their fur. The sea otters were hunted almost into extinction, as the fur trade nearly wiped them out. | Photo: Cindy Tucey | California Sea Otter, Animal, Endangered, Cute,

Circumventing the MMPA to hunt Alaskan sea otters

A mother sea otter wraps her pup in kelp; other sea otters wrap themselves in kelp, too, as they rest. A group of sea otters are floating on their backs, snuggling together, perhaps holding hands, as they are napping.

A rare opportunity is to see animals in the wild; however, people can get a glimpse of the lives of California (or Southern) sea otters through the Elkhorn Slough (Sl-oo) Otter Cam, which overlooks a salt marsh and several tide creeks lining the sides of the main channel. According to Friends of the Sea Otter (FSO), devoted to, and advocates for, the conservation of sea otters and the preservation of their habitat, through education, research, and policy decisions, one of the highest concentrations of California sea otters inhabit Elkhorn Slough, an estuary habitat. As Jim Curland, FSO Advocacy Program Director, states, Elkhorn Slough is an inland area between Monterey and Santa Cruz, rich in biodiversity.

The camera streams live, year-round; Curland believes as people have the opportunity to see these sea otters in their natural habitat, people develop an appreciation and connection to them, inspiring them to help in protection and recovery of sea otters. The advantage of the live otter cam is allowing people to see the sea otters exhibit their various behaviors in the wild, compared to "critter-cams" in zoos, where people see behaviors in captivity. Curland views the otter cam as an invaluable education tool, connecting people with the sea otters, where that connection will help people understand the importance and necessity in conserving "such neat animals'"

The sea otters can be seen here.

The sea otter is the second smallest of the marine mammals (a sea cat, or marine otter found in South America, is the smallest). According to The Marine Mammal Center, a nonprofit veterinary research hospital and education center, dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of ill and injured marine mammals, sea otters are distinguished by their thick fur, consisting of two layers, an undercoat and longer guard hairs; due to their beautiful fur, sea otters in California are a threatened species due to the hunting for their fur. As Curland states, the sea otters were hunted almost into extinction, as the fur trade nearly wiped them out; the International Fur Seal Treaty of 1911 has made it illegal to hunt sea otters in California. The sea otters have faced a "rough road to recovery," creating pockets of populations, where some populations have rebounded, some not as successful. FSO has dedicated the past 46 years in protecting sea otters to ensure healthy sea otter populations, with the goal of allowing future generations the ability to view sea otters living in the wild.

Curland observes, sea otters can be social and independent, often seen hanging out in groups, or "rafts." Sea otters are playful with one another, where Curland affectionately equates them with our domestic pets, exhibiting grooming behaviors and their playful interactions, "remind[ing] me of watching dogs interact." Sea otters have the potential to be aggressive, where males can be aggressive with females during mating. A remarkable characteristic: sea otters are one of the few tool users in the animal kingdom, taking an item from their environment to crack open what they eat, which to Curland, signals the sea otters' intelligence.

Sea otters have a "profound effect on the habitat they're in," serving two imperative roles: as a keystone species, and as an indicator species. As a keystone species, sea otters maintain the delicate balance of our ecosystem (particularly in maintaining the kelp ecosystems), by eating sea urchins and other invertebrate grazers, the primary feeders of kelp. If the sea otters were not present to eat the sea urchins, they would proliferate, eating the kelp forest. The sea otters in maintaining the sea urchin population, and therefore, maintaining a healthy kelp forest, help to diversify that ecosystem, which include fish. Promoting a healthy kelp forest also prevents erosion from storms; the presence of kelp dampens the impact of the waves, created in heavy storms. The kelp diminishes the energy from the waves which could potentially erode the coast line. As an indicator species, the sea otter gives a "wake up call to humans" if they are dying of disease of land-based origins, factoring in bacteria or other harmful organism affecting the water or the food they eat (much of the same food humans may be eating). The harmful bacteria in the water can potentially cause disease, when humans come in contact with it through water-related recreation, such as swimming or surfing.

Although the "Alaskan sea otters are at the heart of the sea otter's historical range, and since the end of the fur trade, have rebounded unlike in many other regions," numbering approximately 70,000 from the Aleutian Islands to British Columbia, according to FSO, they face persecution, via legislation and federal policy decisions, due to pressure from the fishing community and elected officials. The Alaskan sea otters faced potential threat when Representative Don Young (R. Alaska) introduced H.R. 2714 in late July 2011 (Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, R. introduced a senate companion bill) which would broaden the definition of what constituted native handicraft items made from sea otter pelts based on the term, "significantly altered." However, FSO discovered Rep. Young revealing the true purpose of the bill: responding to complaints of negative interaction between sea otters and fisheries from segments of the fishing community, seeking to curtail the sea otter population.

Curland explains, in Alaska, there are three substocks of sea otters: the Southeast stock, the Southwest stock, and the South central stock; the Southwest stock is the only one of the Alaskan sea otter stocks that is listed and protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which places the responsibility upon the government to protect endangered species, threatened species, and critical habitats vital to the survival of these species (in 1977, the California sea otter was listed as "threatened" under ESA due to the threat of a major oil spill in California, at that time). It is the Southeast stock the Alaskan fisheries perceive to be a threat to their industry, complaining there was an overabundance of the Southeast sea otter population, interfering with their fisheries and the fisheries' potential to thrive. The only exemption for the hunting of sea otters lies within the native people, where they are allowed to hunt sea otters for their handicraft items, which is monitored to some degree.

The bill's "intent" was to help the native handicraft industry by clarifying what is allowable in the hunting and selling of their crafts made with sea otter pelts. According to FSO, the bill would modify the requirements under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which protects all marine mammals, in which some marine mammal species (or stocks) may be in danger of extinction (or depletion) due to human activity. The concern of FSO and its colleague organizations is that the harvested sea otter parts, and the use of unmodified sea otter pelts, could be made into traditional craft by native people and non-natives, therefore, opening the market for trade, with no restriction on the pelts being sold to businesses, then made into commercial items. In addition, under the MMPA, every sea otter harvested must be "tagged" and recorded by an agent of the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service (FWS), which has the mission of conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats; however, the bill fails to address the enforcement, where there is no way for an agent to verify whether the harvested sea otter originated from the threatened Southwest population or another population.

The FWS was also receiving complaints from the fishing community, as elected officials were receiving pressure, who, would then, also exert pressure on FWS. The state would then get involved, forcing state legislation to be drafted, becoming a "vicious cycle of everyone trying to placate the fishing industry," as Curland observes. The FWS was then forced to take action, by drafting a clarification of the definitions of what would be constituted as a native handicraft item.

The clarification of the definition was released for public comment in August of 2013, where the public voiced their concerns; scientific arguments against the bill were made, as well as submissions of legal comments from FSO and its colleague organizations (Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Animal Welfare Institute, and Oceans Public Trust Initiative, a project of the Earth Island Institute's International Marine Mammal Program). FSO had petitioned the government for files, document, emails, meeting notes, all paper documentation, giving the parameters what they were seeking, in efforts to augment their arguments. What FSO discovered was incriminating evidence of the "bending of FWS to the pressure from elected officials and fishing communities" in response to the growing population of the Southeast Alaskan sea otters. It was appalling to FSO that the FWS was attempting to manage fisheries by the use of predator control; FWS could not claim there wasn't political and fishing community pressure.

Alaskan sea otter
Alaskan sea otter

Alaskan sea otter: Sea otters are playful with one another, and can be social and independent, often seen hanging out in groups, or “rafts.” A remarkable characteristic: sea otters are one of the few tool users in the animal kingdom, signaling the sea otters’ intelligence, taking an item from their environment to crack open what they eat. | Photo: Heidi Pearson | Alaskan Sea Otter, Animal, Endangered, Cute, Wildlife,

In November of 2013, the clarification on the definition of what constituted as what a native handicraft item was, particularly in the definition of "significantly altered," was published as guidelines in what had to be done to the pelt for it to be constituted as a native handicraft item (such as stitching). Curland explains, in broadening the definition of "significantly altered," it would be easy to convert a pelt into a rug, which would lead to additional hunting of sea otters in the guise of creating native handicraft items. The belief held by FSO and its colleague organizations was that the true intent was to use predator control to manage the conflict with the fisheries. FSO believes there are still problems within the finalized definition, as they did not heed any of FSO's recommendations in a letter and comments:

If H.R. 2714 had been enacted, and with the policy process progressing of FWS clarifying definitions, a large number of Alaskan sea otters would be killed, where the trading and selling of their pelts (and other parts) would essentially be unregulated, sold virtually in any way, such as through Ebay, deviating from the intent of native handicraft trade. FSO continued with additional comments to the FWS after the November release of the definition, creating a record of continual communication with the agency, in preparation of future action. In addition, FSO's attorneys view a minor victory in the admission made by FWS through a blatant statement in supplemental documents indicating that it was not the intent of FWS to use predator control in the management of fisheries (because of fisheries' concerns); statements which could be used in future action. Currently, the bill is inactive and has not been reintroduced. FSO remains vigilant, in preparation for the potential of reintroduction of the bill and further action by FWS.

As deplorable as H.R. 2714 was, as atrocious was the action of Alaskan state Senator Bert Stedman, who introduced a "bounty bill." The bounty bill would provide a $100 bounty for each sea otter a native person killed. As expected, the bill received mammoth negative backlash, as Curland asserts, "It is horrific to place a bounty on such an important animal," appalled the senator would introduce such a piece of legislation; state legislation which cannot trump federal protection under the MMPA. The senator is currently in the process of amending his bill with hopes of reintroduction. To Curland, it is abhorrent to incentivize hunting, where if either of these bills were enacted, the precedent established would be "dangerous for wildlife conservation," allowing the process of managing an industry by controlling a wildlife population. FSO is closely monitoring the potential reintroduction of the state bill as well.

As FSO has been working tirelessly in speaking for the sea otters, we, too have the power to give them a voice. Our personal choices have a mammoth impact, as understanding the land-sea connection is imperative: what we pour down our drains eventually migrates into our oceans, which could harm the sea otters and other marine species living in the oceans. Our choices make a difference, such as eliminating toxins, ceasing the use of pesticides by shopping organic, and choosing seafood which was caught sustainably, where the fishing methods do not trap other animals. In connection, we should be vigilant in not over-consuming a species in low abundance, the same food other animals may need to eat. Curland expresses, the goal of FSO is to empower people with their message that everyone has the ability to help not only sea otters, but all animals and the environment.

Curland hopes for people to have a general understanding of the plight animals face; it is our connection with those animals which is crucial in protecting them. Education and outreach are imperative programs, such as speaking engagements at schools and community groups. Curland also mentions Sea Otter Awareness Week, which takes place during the last week of September, where events are held across the nation, even internationally, in zoos and aquariums, placing the spot light on sea otters, to educate and inform the public about these beautiful beings click here.

Curland leaves an ending revelation: the environmental community had done a poll on environmental issues; results yielded environmental issues rating low on the list of priorities; expectedly, people found economic issues to be a high priority. To Curland, "If we don't take care of our planet and species of animals, these things won't matter," as we won't have a healthy earth to live in, or for our children to grow up in. What is also depressing to Curland is that during our lifetime, although the sea otters have "dodged the bullet" of extinction (for now), other species are in the decline, where the numbers that remain are disheartening, as some species have gone extinct; "for that to happen is a depressing statement of our humanity."

"Imagine being the last of your kind. Sadly, there are no more dodos' but imagine if more animals were to disappear before you could discover them."'The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

For more information, please visit: SeaOtters.org

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:04 PM EDT | More details


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