The Luckless Sea Otter

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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.)