Natural Perspectives: Protecting California's sea otters

Vic and I spent the Thanksgiving holidays in Monterey with our son Scott, his wife, Nicole, and their three little daughters, Allison, Lauren and Megan. I missed cooking our holiday dinner, but Thanksgiving is really more about family than food.

We thoroughly enjoyed a delicious and stress-free dinner buffet at the Marriott. There were so many choices of things to eat that it was impossible to try them all. We didn't miss cleaning dirty pots and pans one little bit. No cooking and no cleanup meant that we had more time for visiting with each other.

Our three granddaughters are in preschool now, and are as cute as can be. The twins, Allison and Lauren, will turn 5 in a few weeks, and Megan is nearly 3. Their birthdays fall between Christmas and New Year's.

We attended a Christmas tree lighting in Monterey, complete with carolers and Santa's workshop. The girls weren't the least bit shy about talking to Santa, and they knew exactly what they wanted. Much to our surprise, all three of them asked Santa for a baby sister! That request will be hard for Santa to fill with only three weeks notice. Maybe next Christmas.

On my trip to Monterey with the Photographic Society of Orange County in April last year, I discovered that sea otters hang out around the mouth of the Salinas River by Moss Landing. They may be attracted by the warm water that is released by the power plant near the river mouth.

Last week we checked, and sure enough, more than 30 otters were lolling about in the shallows, napping and grooming themselves. Seeing so many wild sea otters in one place sent shivers up my spine.

As you may know, sea otters nearly went extinct. Hunted heavily for their fur by Russian whalers, sea otter numbers plummeted during the 1800s. With hunters taking 200,000 sea otters a year, the population seemed doomed. By the start of the 20th century, only about 2,000 sea otters remained in the Pacific.

The California sea otter subspecies was thought to have gone extinct until a relict population was found in an isolated Big Sur cove in 1938. They were given legal protection, and slowly the otter numbers rebounded. The California sea otter population peaked at 2,800 animals in 2007. Numbers have declined slightly since then.

The current range of California sea otters runs along the central coast from just south of San Francisco Bay to south of Point Conception. Historically, sea otters lived in Southern California as well, hunting in the waters off the Channel Islands, San Pedro and points south. The local Tongva and Acjachemem Native Americans used otter fur for clothing, specifically the aprons that women wore to cover themselves.

As the otter population of Monterey Bay recovered, the otters spread out to attempt to recolonize their former habitat. In recent years, they have been sighted as far south as Santa Barbara. But Southern California south of Point Conception was declared an "otter-free zone" in 1987, and any otters that ventured south lost the protections afforded them under the Endangered Species Act. During the 1990s, the otters were actually trapped and removed if they strayed from their designated habitat.

The Otter Project and Environmental Defense Center sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the "otter-free zone" designation and allow otters to expand their range naturally. U.S. Fish and Wildlife had attempted to establish a secondary otter population off San Nicolas Island, but the program has been deemed by most to be a failure. About 90% of the otters died as a result of the relocation effort. The lawsuit directed U.S. Fish and Wildlife to assess whether the relocation effort had succeeded or failed, and if it was determined to be a failure, to cease the program of relocation of otters that swim back into their former habitat.

Just last week, the lawsuit was settled, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will finally review its policies regarding California sea otter. We hope that soon the otters will be allowed to swim wherever they want and will continue to receive full protection of the Endangered Species Act no matter where they are. Fortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had ceased forcibly removing otters from Southern California in 2001.

Eliminating the "otter-free zone" is just one step in improving conditions for the California sea otter. Other steps that will benefit otters are continuing to improve water quality in the ocean by improving sewage treatment, preventing sewage spills and treating storm water and urban runoff.

Another important step is not flushing cat litter down the toilet. Cat feces can contain Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that causes brain disease in sea otters.

Agricultural runoff is another issue that affects sea otters. Recently, the coastal waters of Central California were found to be the most toxic in California. The source of that toxicity is mainly pesticides from agricultural runoff. The farmland of the Salinas Valley is the salad bowl of the nation, but we may be growing lettuce at the expense of sea otters and other marine life. By choosing to eat organic produce, we are benefiting the environment. It seems odd, but our local actions in the kind of food that we select can affect wildlife in distant places.

While we were in Monterey, we saw a sick sea otter lying on a dock along with about 300 California sea lions. Sea otters spend their entire lives at sea, so to see one on land was highly unusual. The little girls didn't notice the sick otter, and we didn't point it out. They didn't know how lucky they were to have seen so many healthy otters in one place. That is something that neither Vic nor I could have experienced as children. At least in some ways, the world is now a better place to raise children than it was 50 years ago.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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