If you haven’t seen it already, the no otter zone got wide popular attention in the news this weekend. Although I cringed when I read the title “Hungry sea otters move into fishermen’s territory“, I found the rest of the article, written by Naoki Swartz of the Associated Press, to be pretty balanced.
The article quotes Lilian Carswel, the sea otter biologist from Fish & Wildlife Service describing the no otter zone as “a view of the world as if animals are your chess pieces”. Well put.
Thankfully this view is shifting as conservation theory moves towards ecosystem based management, rather than rearranging individual animals–unfortunately the rest of Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to catch up with this world view. We might not be moving the chess pieces anymore, but we’re still letting the board define how we protect sea otters.
A lot of the article focused on the threat that otters pose to fisheries. A fisheries representative noted wistfully at the end that their species–the sea urchin–isn’t as cute or as popular as the otter. Which is completely true and almost makes you feel sorry for them. Except for the fact that our interest in seeing otters protected and restored goes WAY beyond the cute card.
I’m not saying we won’t play the cute card–we will. But when it comes down to it, conserving otters is about ecosystem restoration and protection, and fostering conservation habits that protect ecosystem integrity for the public good. Sea otters foster healthy, abundant kelp forests, which shelter rich, diverse communities of fish and marine creatures. Kelp forests also protect the coast from erosion and the resultant pollution that comes with unnatural sedimentation. They buffer the shore from storms and big waves. These are called ecosystem services, and they rarely get counted in traditional economic calculations–but we’re starting to realize that they’re worth a lot. If ecosystem services seem abstract, there are plenty of more straightforward economic benefits that come with sea otters–tourism and recreational spending are significant industries on the Central and South Coast.
And then there’s the non-economic value. The restoration of a native ecosystem that is a part of our natural history is something that we should value as well.
Schwartz notes that the shellfisheries in question only exist due to the extirpation of the otter in the first place–something that often gets overlooked by the rhetoric of entitlement that the fisheries expound. Furthermore, the fisheries are in decline already, without the assistence of the otters. Sea urchin landings have declined significantly since their peak in the mid 1990s with minimal otter presence in the region. Furthermore, otter expansion is slow to happen, and impacts will occur over a prolonged period of time. This will allow fisheries plenty of time to adapt their practices–something that it seems they will have to do anyway.
All in all, it’s time we stopped trying to manipulate complex systems for singular purposes. It’s increasingly clear that the protection of ecosystems–their species, their systems, and their interactions–has net benefits for us all. Allowing sea otter expansion is a key part of recovery; not just for sea otters but for the California coast.
Lastly, a follow up article ran in Scientific American’s website: Stay otter there.