When I heard that the first sea otter had been spotted off of Santa Barbara Harbor, all my alarm sirens went off. Sea otters seem to cast a magical spell upon any landlubber who gazes upon them. But if Santa Barbara is going to welcome the sea otter back, I think it is critical that its residents understand the price that will be exacted.
I have developed an intimate relationship with Santa Barbara’s sea creatures during the many years that I have resided here—especially the edible ones such as lobster, clams, scallops, crabs, and, back in the day, all five varieties abalone. I’ve lived in the otter mecca of Monterey and surveyed the ocean bottom for urchins and abalone both there and here. Plus, while earning a bachelors of science in fisheries at Humboldt State University, I mingled with many pro-sea otter people, so I know how they think, and how the game is played.
A little history: Japanese hard-hat divers pioneered abalone diving in Monterey in the 1920s. My Monterey neighbor and old friend Benny (who knew Steinbeck) fondly recalled the time when his father (a pure-blooded Sicilian) would take the Japanese divers out on his sardine boat for a 50 percent share. At that time, the Japanese were forbidden to own boats. As we all know, during WWII the Japanese here were relieved of all their property and relocated to camps. After the war, in the absence of the Japanese divers, the fledgling abalone industry was overtaken by sardine fishing. But by the time Cannery Row crashed in the late 1950’s, the abalone industry had found new hubs in Santa Barbara, Morro Bay, and other places.
During the 1950’s, the otters—whose shiny pelts once drove entire nations to war and Bostonian trading companies to the end of the earth—made a comeback. Either they bounced back from a remnant population on the Big Sur Coast, or, as some believe, they were intentionally and covertly transplanted from an Alaskan population. In any case, within five years of the otters’ becoming firmly established on the Central Coast, the area’s once-thriving abalone fishery had been wiped out, from Morro bay to Santa Cruz.
The otter population really hit its stride in the late 1980s. I recall diving along the Big Sur coast during this time and seeing literally thousands of fresh beautiful abalone shells strewn across the bottom, all with tell-tale holes which the otters had made with a small rock to get at the meat. As the otters roamed south, they left a trail of dead fisheries in their path. To their credit, in a way, the otters denuded the sea floor of everything with a shell in their 400-mile California range: Every last sea urchin, abalone, clam, crab, lobster, and even starfish is gone. An obvious case in point is Pismo Beach, named for its giant greenback clams. The clams disappeared within a couple of years of the otters’ arrival in the mid-1990s. Otters are God’s creatures and I bear no malice towards them. However, the people that are willing to deceive an unknowing public on the otters’ behalf are another story.
Sea otter is federally listed as an endangered species. The fact that it is under federal management trumps the State of California’s ability to manage the animal or protect state-managed species, such as abalone and lobster, from it. The otter population level where they are to be de-listed is about 3000. A group of friends and I conducted a count in the early 2000s. We determined that there were more than 5000 of the animals in the Monterey Bay alone and an estimated 15,000 in California. Oddly enough, the otter counters for the government always seems to come up with a number just short of the 3000 mark: 2888, 2997, 2500 and so on. It is clear that those in charge of the official counts cook the numbers to keep the species listed, ensuring the unchecked expansion of the animal and furthering misguided, self serving agendas.
The sea urchin and commercial abalone divers reached an agreement with the federal government in the 1990s whereby otters would be transplanted onto San Nicholas Island. The idea was to create a safe haven where otters could survive in the event of an oil spill. In exchange, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services agreed to remove, to the island, any otters found south of Point Conception. Ten years after this agreement the government has formally re-negged and makes no such effort.
On the outer Channel Islands and along the coast near Point Concepcion, otters have already wiped out the last remaining population of white abalone, listed by the state and feds as seriously endangered. A few pockets of white abalone remain in Santa Barbara; those will be wiped out should an otter colony chose to make its home here. There is still a robust red abalone population at the outer islands (and near Hollister Ranch) that could easily support a small commercial and sport harvest. However, otter zealots have used political influence to keep people from taking a single abalone at San Miguel and Santa Rosa Islands. The idea is to leave plenty of food there to entice otters from the mainland.
The otter was once a critical part of the Chumash Indians’ lives. The sea otter swam out of the rivers to become a marine animal just 10,000 years ago, about the same time that humans started to inhabit the California coast. The natives hunted otters for their pelts; thus the otters evolved within the context of a hunter/quarry relationship with man. In essence, the otter relies on man to control its numbers; this prevents the otter from wiping out its own food sources.
The otter people will tell you to “restore the natural balance,” and that the abalone were only ever present in such large numbers because of the lack of otters. Nobody can say with certainly what the natural balance is. But there is no doubt that every last urchin diver in Santa Barbara will go out of business within five years of the sea otters’ setting up permanent colonies in the area.
The otter people have a powerful lobby, ranging from the Sierra Club and Green Peace to the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Packards (of Hewlitt-Packard), who run the Monterey Bay Aquarium. These powerful groups routinely use their lobbying power to enforce their political will. They are the same people who brought you the Marine Protected Areas. So be assured: The otters are coming, and Santa Barbarans will be able to enjoy espying them from atop their cliffside mansions, watching them float in the kelp beds in the MPAs—where nobody is allowed to fish except of course the otters, who will gladly deplete the areas of everything with a hard shell.
Chris Goldblatt is the Author of the Luke Dodge Ocean Adventure series, STONE SHOT and Explosive Crossroads, available at Amazon.com or Blue Water Hunter Dive shop in the harbor.