Santa Cruz-based website aims to educate and inspire the public about sea otters
If you live in California, you’ve probably heard about the plight of sea otters. You may have even donated a few income tax dollars to them, via Assembly Bill 971, approved almost unanimously last June by California legislators. But Drew Wharton, founder of seaotters.com, thinks that the fight to ensure the future of the southern (or California) sea otter can’t stop there.
Launched on the 23rd anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Santa Cruz-based website aims to make the research surrounding sea otter conservation efforts more accessible.
“The southern sea otter has been listed as threatened since 1977,” Wharton says, referencing the tenuous status of the iconic California critter.
There are currently barely more than 2,700 southern sea otters in the Central Coast area, according to the most recent census conducted by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). High mortality rates, rather than low reproductive rates, are commonly viewed as the culprit for this statistic.
“Those elevated rates are really among prime-aged adults, and that’s not good,” Wharton says.
Tim Tinker, a research biologist for the USGS and an adjunct professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, says that mortality rates are especially damaging if they’re high among breeding females.
“Although pups are the most vulnerable to limited resources, high mortality rates among reproductive females affects population the most,” Tinker says.
Census data is just part of the research being conducted by the six entities that contribute information to seaotters.com. These groups are UCSC, UC Davis, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the USGS, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game, operating under the blanket name of “The Sea Otter Alliance.”
“Everyone has a different role to play,” Wharton says. “From Fish and Game handling necropsies to the Monterey Bay Aquarium doing surrogate and rehab programs, this is an incredibly collaborative effort. We’ve all come together with what we can bring to the table.”
For Wharton, an important point to stress is the impact that land-based activities have on the health of the southern sea otter and other coastal species.
“When we look at the multitude of threats facing the [sea otter] population, 40 percent of the problem is infectious disease,” Wharton says. “And most infectious diseases are caused by land sources.”
Still, the issue of sea otter mortality rates is not a simple one. James Estes is an ex-employee of the USGS, where he worked as a research scientist for 40 years. Now he is an adjunct professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCSC. As an overall sea otter expert, Estes says that the disease aspect of elevated sea otter mortality rates is complicated.
“We don’t really see much of a problem with the living mammals, but the dead ones that we find on the beach are really diseased,” Estes says. “Is [the California coast] a polluted environment, or are they succumbing to diseases through the natural processes of death? It’s been oversimplified in some circles; people take it for granted that there is a large disease presence.”
Incidents of disease and other forms of contamination aren’t the only vagaries in sea otter conservation. Speculation surrounds the issue of flat-lining population numbers, as well.
“We don’t understand why the population isn’t increasing,” Estes says. “The only [initiatives] that make sense are protecting their habitats and reducing pollutants into the ocean. It’s a really hard problem, because you’re dealing with a population that isn’t doing anything.”
Wharton hopes that the natural visibility and popularity of sea otters will help to raise awareness about a broader spectrum of coastal issues.
“They are such charismatic animals that a lot of people can relate to,” he says. “If we can start the conversation with the threats facing one species, then the conversation can broaden to be talking about our role in the health of the ocean as a whole. It all starts with education. We can make a difference simply by reconsidering our own habits and encouraging others to do the same.”
Tinker also believes that education is integral to understanding the very real link between land-based human activities and the welfare of ocean-going species.
“We really can educate ourselves about anthropogenic impacts, and how we can be better stewards of an environment that receives so much of what we put into it,” Tinker says.
With southern sea otter mortality rates increasing and populations stagnating, Wharton says it’s not a matter of if, but when, people will step up.
“We have a huge impact on the health of the ocean,” Wharton says. “We can do better. We have to do better.”