Why Sea Otters Hate Salad

Water that drains from farm fields has high levels of nutrients and pesticides.  Nutrients stimulate algae – sometimes toxic species – that can wash into the ocean and kill marine life such as endangered sea otters.

Water that drains from farm fields has high levels of nutrients and pesticides. Nutrients stimulate algae – sometimes toxic species – that can wash into the ocean and kill marine life such as endangered sea otters.

People often look towards the ocean and ask, “What’s wrong, why are otters dying?”  The answer will not be found by looking seaward, but by turning towards land and asking the same question, “What’s wrong?”

Scientists have learned that otters are swimming in contaminated waters, and many are dying from a deadly cocktail of diseases, parasites, and toxic compounds washing from land.

The Otter Project first became concerned about agricultural pollution in 1998 after reading a study (Nakata et. al, 1998) finding dangerously high levels of the banned pesticide DDT in tissues of sea otters found dead along the California coast, especially offshore agricultural areas.  DDT levels in some otters were high enough to cause immune suppression and even outright death.  DDT was banned many years ago but it persists in soils for many decades.  The Otter Project believed that better soil conservation practices would benefit otters.

In 2003, a huge peak in California sea otter deaths caught national attention and federal agencies linked the cause to blooms of the phytoplankton Pseudonitzschia australis. P. australis can produce the toxin domoic acid that causes shellfish poisoning in humans and can lead to deadly seizures in marine birds and mammals such as shearwaters, sea lions, and otters.  More recently, these toxic algal blooms have been linked to agricultural discharges: “We have seen a 30- to 100-fold increase in domoic acid in water samples in the last decade or so,” said Clarissa Anderson, a biological oceanographer at UC Santa Cruz. “We think that the toxicity of these blooms is related to agricultural runoff,” Anderson said.

In 2009, dead otters began washing ashore near the mouths of streams carrying waters highly enriched with nutrients including farm fertilizers.  Scientists stated, “Ocean discharge of freshwater microcystins was confirmed for three nutrient-impaired rivers flowing into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary… Deaths of 21 southern sea otters, a federally listed threatened species, were linked to microcystin intoxication.”  To date, more than 40 otters have been found dead from microcystin poisoning.

The inland valleys of California’s central coast are intensively farmed for 9 to 10 months of the year.  The Otter Project monitors the coast and Salinas Valley by small plane.  One grower threatened to shoot the plane down. The Salinas River is to the left and Monterey Bay in the far distance.

The inland valleys of California’s central coast are intensively farmed for 9 to 10 months of the year. The Otter Project monitors the coast and Salinas Valley by small plane. One grower threatened to shoot the plane down. The Salinas River is to the left and Monterey Bay in the far distance.

In May, National Geographic magazine featured an article, “Mixed Blessing: If we don’t watch out, agriculture could destroy our planet.”  The story chronicled global overuse of nitrogen fertilizers.  America’s Breadbasket in the Midwest has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and America’s Salad Bowl in California’s central coast is killing endangered sea otters; clearly, sea otter and ocean health are closely tied to agricultural discharges.  It’s not just sea otters: Marine birds and mammals are dying in the thousands.  As our oceans are poisoned, fisheries and the communities that depend upon them are dying too.

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Government Releases Spring 2013 Sea Otter Survey – Good News for Our Otters!

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Today the US Geological Survey released the Spring 2013 sea otter count, and it’s good news, the California sea otter population has continued to grow for the second consecutive year. Teams of scientists counted 2899 otters and pups, this is up from 2865 adults and pups counted in 2012.

Sea otter recovery is keyed to the three year running average, or population index. This year the three year average was 2882 otters, up from 2792 in 2012. An index of 3090 is required before the population can be considered for de-listing from America’s Endangered Species Act.

In recent years the California sea otter population has been growing in fits and starts with declines in the late 1990s and again a decline in 2009 and 2010. Otters were not counted in 2011.

The population has a long way to go: An estimated 12,000 to 18,000 sea otters once lived along our coast. Sea otters were hunted for their fur and the population was decimated in the 1700s and early 1800s by American, Spanish, Russian, British, and French traders. Thought to be extinct in California, a small population was ‘discovered’ near Bixby Creek in the 1930s when Highway 1 along the Big Sur Coast was first opened.

“This is really fantastic news,” said Steve Shimek, Chief Executive of The Otter Project, “the California sea otter is considered an iconic endangered species and to see it scrap back from the brink within our lifetimes is a true success story.”

“Otters are dying from shark attacks, natural causes, and other things we can do nothing about, but they are also dying from diseases and chemicals washing from land. For over a decade now The Otter Project has been working to improve the ocean environment and we think it is having an impact. It’s great to see that the hard work is starting to pay off.”

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The Otter Project Announces Opposition to Lawsuit Threatening Sea Otter Recovery.

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THE OTTER PROJECT, ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENSE CENTER AND LOS ANGELES WATERKEEPER ANNOUNCE MOVE TO DEFEND U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE DECISION TO END “NO OTTER ZONE” FROM LEGAL CHALLENGE FILED BY COMMERCIAL FISHING GROUPS

Three groups, including the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), The Otter Project, and Los Angeles Waterkeeper have mobilized to intervene in a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) December, 2012 decision officially ending the ‘no-otter zone.’ This important FWS decision allowed sea otters to begin to regain a foothold in their natural range in Southern California – an outcome vital to the recovery of the species. This new lawsuit, filed by four fishing organizations, dangerously seeks resumption of the no-otter zone.

FWS’s December 2012 decision to end the no-otter zone was made pursuant to a 2010 legal agreement reached by The Otter Project and EDC with the FWS after the groups sued to end the agency’s decades-long delay in making a required decision on whether or not to terminate the ‘Southern Sea Otter Translocation Program’–an outdated rule from 1987 prohibiting threatened southern sea otters from California waters south of Point Conception (Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border). Allowing otters to once again inhabit southern California waters is considered critical to the recovery of the species.

“Our groups have been preparing for the fishermen’s lawsuit for months and we will soon file our papers to intervene,” said Steve Shimek, Executive Director of The Otter Project. “In recent days other groups have similarly announced their support for sea otters and we look forward to working with them.”

The essence of the fishing groups’ lawsuit is that the southern sea otter must be prevented from reinhabiting southern California waters because otters will compete for urchins and abalone. In fact urchins and abalone are more threatened by disease and overfishing than by natural predation by the southern sea otter. FWS estimates that “the California abalone fisheries may have contributed up to a 99 percent reduction in black abalone abundance” (74 Fed. Reg. 1941 (Jan. 14, 2009)), and notes that the California white abalone fishery was closed in 1996, due to “serial depletion” of the species by fishing, “thereby eliminating the factor most responsible for the species’ decline.” (66 Fed. Reg. 29046
(May 29, 2001)).

“It’s a simple fact that sea otters, abalone, and sea urchins coexisted for thousands of years. There just aren’t hundreds of otters waiting in Morro Bay, ready to swim south. Over the next hundred years, otters will slowly return and will change the system back to what it once was, with bigger healthier kelp forests and more fin-fish,” said Shimek.

“The lawsuit is a desperate attempt to revive the failed no-otter zone, based on unsubstantiated concerns by commercial fishing groups,” stated Brian Segee, Staff Attorney with EDC. “These organizations would require the Fish and Wildlife Service to move sea otters from their natural range, a practice that has resulted in the death and disappearance of otters in the past.”

“Our marine ecosystem has been out of balance for decades. Removing the no-otter zone, restoring kelp forests, and establishing marine protected areas are critical actions for reversing this degradation,” said Liz Crosson, Executive Director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper. “The science shows that our fisheries will be much more robust once our habitats are protected and the natural balance of the food chain is restored.”

Under the decision, sea otters are now legally free to float the sunny southern California waters without the threat of being trapped and ‘deported’ to northern California. Sea otters in southern California now have the same protections under the ESA and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) as otters to the north, including being protected from harm from any new development plans that could impact their recovery.

The southern sea otter population numbers around 2,800 in a range that once supported 12,000 to 16,000 sea otters and is listed as “threatened” under the ESA and “depleted” under the MMPA. Sea otter recovery is impossible with the no-otter zone in place.
Beginning in 1987, when the no-otter zone was established, the FWS moved 140 southern sea otters to San Nicolas Island, the most remote of California’s Channel Islands, in an attempt to establish a reserve population and protect the small and struggling mainland population from a catastrophic event, such as an oil spill. Shellfish fishermen, the offshore oil industry, and the Navy objected to the plan and as a result the no-otter zone (officially called the ‘management zone’) was established. Unfortunately, the relocation plan failed immediately when all but about 11 of the 140 otters swam away from San Nicolas
Island and back to their home waters or perished. In spite of the failure, the no-otter zone stayed in place and wandering otters were trapped and deported for many years. The failure of the FWS to protect the otters in this area led to the lawsuit filed by The Otter Project and Enivronmental Defense Center.

“Ending the no-otter zone was an important victory for marine life and the endangered species act,” said Brian Segee. “Our three organizations are determined to support the Fish and Wildlife Service and to ensure this misguided lawsuit does not stand in the way of a full recovery for California’s beloved sea otter.”

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2013 Coastal Art & Poetry Contest Winners

The California Coastal commission recently posted the winners of their annual Coastal Art & Poetry Contest. We post a lot of serious issues here on the blog and sometimes the perspective of a child says a lot more than a conservationist, scientist or politician can convey on a subject.

It is amazing to think that this pelican drawing was done by a first grade student!

Pelican

Chloe S. Park 1st grade, Encino CA

One of the winning entries was a poem from Isaac Goldstein, an 8th Grade student from Ventura CA, talking about our California sea otters and the removal of the “No-Otter” Zone.

The Otter 

Once upon a sunlit ocean,
Otters and kelp swayed in motion,
Over herring, rockfish, and much more,
All along California’s shore.

But otters were stalked where they dwelt.
Hunted for their lustrous pelt.
Then told to move to San Nicolas.
Giving otters directions is ridiculous.

But now otters have protection.
Even after Point Conception,
No longer is there a “no otter zone,”
Keeping them from their historic home.

When otters were gone, sea urchins would thrive,
Which kept the kelp from staying alive.
Urchins eat the kelp ocean lawn,
When roots are eaten, the kelp is gone.

Herring and rockfish lost habitat,
They lost their nurseries just like that.
With otters’ return, sea urchins will fade,
Letting spawning fish be unafraid.

Otters can now roam an 840 mile coast.
Otter skins no longer can hunters boast.
Otter relocation will no longer stand.
No longer from waters are otters banned.

Isaac Goldstein
8th grade, Ventura

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The ‘No-Otter Zone’ is no more

FWS terminates southern sea otter translocation program, fulfills 2009 legal settlement with The Otter Project and Environmental Defense Center.

Head-down-southToday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a final rule officially ending the ‘no-otter zone’ encompassing nearly all of the sea otter’s natural range in southern California.  In 2009, the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) sued the FWS on behalf of The Otter Project and itself, challenging FWS’ decades-long delay in making a required decision on whether or not to terminate the ‘Southern Sea Otter Translocation Program’–an outdated rule from 1987 prohibiting threatened southern sea otters from California waters south of Point Conception (Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border).  Allowing otters to once again inhabit southern California waters is considered critical to the recovery of the species.  Under a 2010 legal settlement reached by The Otter Project and EDC with the FWS, the agency was required to make a final decision on the fate of the program by December 2012.  Publication of the final rule is the last step of the settlement between the FWS and the two environmental groups.

“Trying to tell a marine mammal to stay on one side of an imaginary line across the water was a dumb idea,” said Steve Shimek, Executive Director of The Otter Project.  “This rule will not only protect sea otters from harm, but because of the otters’ critical role in the environment, it will also help restore our local ocean ecosystem.”

“Southern sea otters have been largely absent from their historic southern California habitat for far too long,” stated Brian Segee, EDC Staff Attorney and lead attorney in the litigation and subsequent settlement.  “This decision is a critical step in efforts to recover southern sea otters, by formally allowing this charismatic and intelligent species to naturally return to waters south of Point Conception.”

Under the decision, sea otters are now legally free to float the sunny southern California waters without the threat of being trapped and ‘deported’ to northern California.  Sea otters in southern California will have the same protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) as otters to the north, including being protected from harm from any new development plans that could impact their recovery.

The southern sea otter population numbers around 2,800 in a range that once supported 12,000 to 16,000 sea otters and is listed as ‘threatened’ under the ESA and ’depleted’ under the MMPA.  Sea otter recovery is impossible with the ‘no-otter zone’ in place.

Beginning in 1987, when the ‘no-otter zone’ was established, the FWS moved 140 southern sea otters to San Nicolas Island, the most remote of California’s Channel Islands, in an attempt to establish a reserve population and protect the small and struggling mainland population from a catastrophic event, such as an oil spill.  Shellfish fishermen, the offshore oil industry, and the Navy objected to the plan and as a result the ‘no-otter zone’ (officially called the ‘management zone’) was established.  Unfortunately, the relocation plan failed immediately when all but about 11 of the 140 otters swam away from San Nicolas Island and back to their home waters or perished.  In spite of the failure, the ‘no-otter zone’ stayed in place and wandering otters were trapped and deported for many years.

The mainland population began to expand its range into 1995 and in 1998 152 otters swam nearly en masse across the line.  Fishermen sued the FWS, demanding the otters be trapped and removed.  That lawsuit failed.  In 2001 the FWS declared that it would no longer move otters out of the zone but left the lower level of protection of sea otters in the zone in place.  The failure of the FWS to protect the otters in this area led to the lawsuit filed by The Otter Project and EDC.

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revisedtoplogo_2c-small1.jpgThe Otter Project protects our watersheds and coastal oceans for the benefit of California sea otters and humans through science-based policy and advocacy. Founded in 1998, The Otter Project has worked to improve near shore ocean health and resolve the barriers to sea otter recovery.  Learn more about The Otter Project at www.otterproject.org.

Environmental Defense CenterThe Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties.  Since 1977, EDC has empowered community based organizations to advance environmental protection.  Program areas include protecting coast and ocean resources, open spaces and wildlife, and human and environmental health.  Learn more about EDC at www.EnvironmentalDefenseCenter.org.

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Sea Otters Sue State Water Resources Control Board

Lawsuit alleges delay of Agricultural Regulations is Illegal

(Monterey) 11/30/12, The Otter Project together with Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper, and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, sued the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) for delaying regulations meant to protect the public, the environment, and sea otters.

In March of this year the Regional Water Quality Control Board unanimously passed progressive new regulations (the Conditional Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements for Discharges from Irrigated Agriculture; also known as the Ag Order or Ag Waiver) to protect the public and the environment from agricultural pollution.  The regulations included certain monitoring and reporting requirements that are essential to be consistent with State Law.  State law requires:

“Monitoring requirements shall be designed to support the development and implementation of the waiver program, including, but not limited to, verifying the adequacy and effectiveness of the waiver’s conditions… Monitoring results shall be made available to the public.”

In September the State Water Resources Control Board issued a “stay” delaying the implementation of various parts of the RWQCB’s new regulations.  Specifically, the State Board “stayed” the Regional Board’s requirement 44g:

44. By October 1, 2012, Dischargers must develop a farm water quality management plan (Farm Plan), or update the Farm Plan as necessary, and implement it to achieve compliance with this Order. Farm Plans must be kept current, kept on the farm, and a current copy must be made available to Central Coast Water Board staff, upon request. At a minimum, Farm Plans must include:

g. Description and results of methods used to verify practice effectiveness and compliance with this Order (e.g., water quality sampling, discharge characterization, reductions in pollutant loading).

“The State Water Resources Control Board cannot deliberately choose to ignore the requirements of state law, and effectiveness monitoring and reporting is clearly required by state law,” said Steve Shimek, executive director of The Otter Project.  “To ignore public monitoring and reporting requirements is inviting the fox into the henhouse; the regulatory agencies and public will have no idea if growers are doing anything to control their pollution.”

Central Coast surface and ground waters are some of the most polluted in the State according to the State Water Resources Control Board.[i]  Fifty-six percent of Central Coast monitoring sites indicate the water is “toxic” and 22-percent of sites are “highly toxic.”  A 2012 report to the California Legislature found that “[I]n California’s Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley, roughly 254,000 people are currently at risk for nitrate contamination of their drinking water” and “over 1.3 million people are financially susceptible because nitrate in raw source water exceeds the MCL [maximum contaminant level], requiring actions by drinking water systems.”[ii]  By far, the greatest contributor to the contamination is irrigated agriculture.

“Nearly all of the streams that exhibit high levels of nutrient contamination and toxicity in southern Santa Barbara County are in areas downstream of irrigated agriculture,” said Ben Pitterle, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper’s Watershed Programs Director.  “The problem is severe and pervasive, and the basic monitoring requirements in question are elemental to ensuring that improvements are made.”

San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper Gordon Hensley commented “the single provision we have challenged is simply necessary to demonstrate whether the conditions required of irrigated ag operations work.”

In recent years dozens of sea otters have washed ashore dead, killed by the toxic blue-green algae, microcystis; microcystis blooms in nutrient enriched waters.  The regulations passed by the RWQCB would have taken steps to control agricultural nutrient pollution.  In addition, sea otters carry huge burdens of the agricultural legacy pesticide DDT.  The regulations would have slowed the transport of DDT into the ocean.

For more information contact:

Steve Shimek, The Otter Project, (831) 646-8837 (work) or exec@otterproject.org

Gordon Hensley, San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper, (805) 781-9932, coastkeeper@epicenteronline.org

Ben Pitterle, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper,  (805) 563-3377 ext. 3, ben@sbck.org

Bill Jennings, CA Sportfishing Protection Alliance, (209) 464-5067, deltakeep@me.com

For more information about pollutions issues and sea otters, visit The Otter Project’s website at www.otterproject.org .

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Otters Win! Seismic testing near Diablo Canyon defeated.

The Otter Project’s Executive Director and Founder captures hearts and minds with a picture we call ‘upright otter’. Palpable ‘oooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ could be heard throughout the room.

Late yesterday (11/14) the California Coastal Commission denied PG&E’s application to conduct high-energy seismic testing within Estero Bay and in the heart of the sea otter’s range. PG&E said the testing was needed to assess the potential magnitude of an earthquake at PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Studies indicated that 62 otters or more could have been harmed or killed by the tests in addition to harbor porpoise, dolphins, whales, fishes and more. The nexus between nuclear safety and the environment required thoughtful consideration and study by all stakeholders. Should sea otters stand (paddle!) in the way of public safety?

The Otter Project was part of a small group of environmental activists that also included the Sierra Club, NRDC, Surfrider, and Coastal Advocates. The small but powerful environmental caucus was supported by a myriad of other groups and by literally hundreds of activists rallied by Surfrider, Ocean Conservancy, Greenpeace, and the Chumash Tribe.

The environmental perspective was 1) nuclear safety is critically important and we need to know if the plant is safe; 2) alternative and less destructive technologies are available to gather the same information; 3) PG&E has not analyzed the low energy data they have already acquired to determine if the high-energy data is even needed and; 4) PG&E has stated that no matter what the result, they believe the plant is adequately constructed and will make no changes.

During its presentation to the Coastal Commission The Otter Project projected pictures of sea otters eliciting loud “ohhh” and “ahhhh” sounds from the crowd and Commissioners; the lead PG&E representative was overheard saying to his lawyer, “We just lost.”
After eight hours of testimony and deliberation the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to not allow the tests to move forward. The tests would have cost PG&E ratepayers $64 million.

With PG&E stating that they would not make any changes no matter what the tests showed, it is clear we are just as safe and further ahead with 62 sea otters left alive and paddling.

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