The Luckless Sea Otter

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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.