Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 12
Journey to otter spacePeople from Sausalito to Santa Barbara and beyond are doing their best to protect the California sea otter
BY AMY ASMAN
A California sea otter rescued off the shores of Santa Barbara County will soon be one of the main attractions at the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.
In early June, 5-year-old Abby will leave her home at Sea World in San Diego to become a trial surrogate mother to otter pups rescued by aquarium staffers and volunteers. But Abby is going to have some big shoes—or paws—to fill: She’ll be replacing Toola, the aquarium’s longstanding surrogate otter mother of 13, who died of natural causes in March.
Abby’s trainer, Marcia Thissell, a senior animal care specialist at Sea World, said the Monterey Bay Aquarium started looking for another potential surrogate not long after Toola’s death.
“They looked at different facilities for an animal of the right age and maturity. ... The otter they have, Kit, wasn’t quite ready,” she said. “They asked us about Abby, and we’ve put her with pups before, and we think she’d do a fantastic job.”
When asked to describe Abby’s personality, Thissell said, “She’s our princess, because she really likes her food a certain way; she has specific people she likes to have feed her, and she has her favorite treats.
“Most otters are princesses, but she’s a top-notch princess,” she said. “But her demeanor is very calm, and I’ve been able to use her for a lot of husbandry work because I’ve always felt safe when handling her.”
Still, Thissell called Abby’s departure “bittersweet.”
“She’s loved by everyone here,” she said. “But she’s going to be able to help save the lives of many pups, and even though she can’t be returned to the wild, a lot of her pups can. … That’s really an amazing full-circle story.”
Abby is a survivor herself—a lifeguard found her stranded on a Santa Barbara County beach in 2007.
“She still had the umbilicus attached, so she was probably only a few hours old. She was dehydrated and she had sand in her body. She was a preemie,” Thissell said. “Had she not gotten help right away, she probably wouldn’t have made it.”
The lifeguard called the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center, a local nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates injured sea mammals from Rincon Beach to the Guadalupe Dunes.
Volunteer Nathan Stebor responded to the call, and ended up driving the otter pup down to San Diego that night.
“She needed a lot of care because she was so critical, and Sea World is one of the few facilities that has experience with hand-raising sea otter pups,” Thissell said, adding that animals found in critical condition typically don’t get released back into the wild because they need an extensive amount of care from humans.
But if everything goes well at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Abby will soon play an integral role in returning abandoned otter pups to the wild.
Reestablishing the population
There are several organizations throughout California that rescue injured or abandoned sea otters, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium is “the place that will eventually take [the animal] once it’s picked up,” said Andy Johnson, manager of the aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation program (SORAC).
A common question SORAC employees get is, “How can you tell if a sea otter needs to be rescued?”
“Sea otters will sometimes haul out of the water to rest, but usually it’s discrete and at nighttime,” Johnson said. “Generally, if it’s in a place where there are a lot of people and the animal doesn’t immediately flee back to the water, there’s something wrong.”
SORAC has numerous researchers, husbandry specialists, and volunteers who help nurse the fuzzy creatures back to health and, if possible, release them back into the wild.
Once an otter is brought in to the aquarium, a veterinarian checks it out to see if it has a treatable condition.
“With the pups, it’s pretty obvious if they’ve been abandoned because they can starve very quickly,” Johnson said.
Juvenile pups that have just been weaned tend to suffer from malnourishment due to an inability to secure food. They will often feed in shallow areas where it’s easy to find prey. However, those edible animals, such as sand crabs, can carry parasites from pollution that can cause abdominal infection in otters.
Older otters can pick up bacterial infections as well, and then there are injuries from humans (such as boat strikes and even gunshot wounds) and other predators.
Great white shark attacks have become more prevalent among otters in the last two to three years. Some scientists attribute this spike to an increase in the shark population, but the data is inconclusive.
“The sharks hunt prey by looking up at the silhouettes on the ocean’s surface. They’ll do an exploratory bite to see if it’s a nice succulent seal, but when they discover it’s an otter that’s mostly hair and bones, and not very meaty, they usually don’t want it,” Johnson said.
Often otter pups will survive shark attacks because they’re resting on the chests of their mothers, who bear the brunt of the bite. However, the pups can’t last very long by themselves—and that’s where SORAC comes in.
When the program started 25 years ago, humans would do all of the nurturing themselves, snuggling and grooming the pups, and even diving with them in the ocean. However, researchers soon discovered that the otters were forming bonds with their caretakers, or “imprinting,” which made their releases back into the wild less successful.
Today, caretakers wear large, dark visors and ponchos to mask their human features. SORAC also started using a surrogate mother to teach the otters how to act like otters.
“Now the only time the pups see humans is when they’re being netted out of the pool to be moved or to have their tank cleaned. Sometimes they’ll see a pair of hands dumping food out of a bucket,” Johnson said. “It keeps them wild.”
Conservation is key
Another facet of SORAC—and the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a whole—is educating the public about sea otter and ocean conservation.
This includes teaching people about how to interact with otters in the wild: People who find stranded sea otters shouldn’t try to pick them up or return them to the water, but should instead contact an organization skilled in sea mammal rescue. Additionally, approaching healthy otters, whether on foot or while kayaking or surfing, can cause the animal unnecessary stress.
But most importantly, the aquarium wants people to better understand the vital role otters play in the environment.
“The most critical part is really that otters share habitats with us. Everything we put in the water runs to shore, and otters are at the top of that particular food chain, so they’re the first to experience infection and other diseases,” Johnson said.
According to research at the aquarium, otters are a keystone species that greatly impacts the vitality of kelp forest ecosystems. As apex predators, they keep other species—sea urchins, abalone, clams, and small fish—in check, which allows the kelp to flourish.
Otter proponents such as Johnson argue that protecting otters will make California’s oceans healthier by restoring the natural balance.
There are some groups, however, that feel otters are more hurtful to the environment than helpful.
Steve Rebuck is a former abalone fisherman and consultant to the Sea Otter Recovery Team who helped create a “no-otter zone” in waters past Point Conception. Congress recently passed U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly’s Military Readiness and Southern Sea Otter Conservation Act, which will uphold those zones, and thus continue to protect legal fishing and military operations from being prosecuted for accidentally killing otters in specified zones.
Rebuck believes the California sea otter should be taken off of the endangered species list because it’s no longer threatened.
He argues that when the sea otter was placed on the list in 1977, its population was growing and healthy. Today, there are an estimated 2,700 sea otters in the wild, which is close to the population size at which an animal can start to be delisted.
There could be more otters in the wild, he said, because there have been problems with the way the population is counted.
“Otters are in kelp beds and wind and surf, and they’re not very easy to see,” he said, adding that these conditions can cause counters to miss up to 10 percent of the otter population.
According to information from the U.S. Geological Survey, scientists were unable to complete a population survey in 2011 because of bad weather. Data in 2010 showed a decline in numbers for the second year in a row.
If the otter was taken off the endangered species list, Rebuck said, “Nothing would really change because it would still be protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but it would give [officials] more flexibility in how the animals are managed.”
He said he “has no malice” against otters, but feels they are detrimental to the environment and to fishermen. He said otters are known to remove up to 90 percent of the marine and invertebrate life from a kelp bed by feeding on abalone, clams, sea urchins, lobster, and fish.
“For fishermen and even some marine biologists, that’s alarming,” he said. “If you’re concerned about animal life, you should be objective.”
According to Rebuck, fishermen can’t compete with otters for shellfish and other seafood because they have to adhere to strict guidelines that limit catch size and other fishing conditions.
He also questions whether sea otters truly impact kelp forests as much as some scientists say they do.
“To me, it’s a hoax. There’s no argument for that in California,” he said. “It sounds really nice, but the people who have been researching [otters] for the past 30 years have never been able to make the case.”
In contrast, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Johnson believes fishermen use the sea otter as a scapegoat.
“They think that if sea otters come back, they’ll wipe out the sea urchin population,” Johnson said, adding that there was a similar sentiment about abalone, which experienced a serious decline in the 1990s and continues to be threatened.
“Otters didn’t cause that; we overfished them, which enabled sickness to come in and kill off the population,” he said. “If otters come back, the sick animals get weeded out and the stronger ones survive. That way, you get healthier organisms and a stronger system.
“I understand [the fishermen’s] plight and their point, but if I have to weigh things out, I’ll weigh in favor of the sea otters. That’s more the natural way things are supposed to be,” he said.
Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at email@example.com.