National Geographic : 1971 Oct
took me principally to Alaska, where perhaps 50,000 sea otters live today. On occasion I've investigated a closer colony in warmer waters, off the California coast, home of more than a thousand-the same animal found in the northern waters, as far as I can observe. Cer tainly it is not possible, without additional study, to conclude that distinct races exist. At the turn of the century, even before federal protection began, the southern, or California, sea otter was believed by many to be extinct. Wardens, however, kept seeing a few off central California. To protect them, the California Department of Fish and Game avoided publicizing the observations. In 1938 a resident sighted about a hun dred on the rugged Big Sur coast in Monterey County. It proved to be the only colony re maining south of Alaska. The sea otters of Baja California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia had vanished. Voracious Eaters Dote on Abalone To guard its remaining otters, California in 1941 set aside 25 miles of coastline as a refuge, and expanded it to 100 miles in 1959. Not all Californians rejoiced at the otter's survival, however. Dan Leedy, my supervisor in Wash ington, D. C., brought the controversy to my attention in the early 1960's. "Abalone fisher men want sea otters removed from the com mercial abalone beds," he said. "They claim the otters destroy their fishery." I already knew something of an Alaskan otter's appetite. Daily it eats a fifth to a quar ter of its body weight in fish, mollusks, and sea urchins. That equals about 15 pounds of food for an adult male and 8 to 10 pounds for a female. In their Menlo Park laboratory, I asked Mel Odemar and Earl Ebert, biologists for the California Department of Fish and Game, how serious the problem was. "There's no question about it," Mel said. "Sea otters can severely deplete an abalone bed. Wherever otters feed in large numbers, abalones survive only in cracks in rocks where otters can't reach them." Abalone fisherman Ernie Porter put the problem this way: "If we're to feed our families, we must remove the otters from fish ing places. California law limits us to only larger abs, but the otters take all sizes." At Big Sur I heard the other side of the story from two staunch supporters of the otter: Margaret Owings, wife of noted archi tect Nathaniel Owings and an outstanding artist in her own right, and Dr. James A. 526 Mattison, Jr., Salinas, California, surgeon and talented underwater photographer. "They're wonderful animals," Margaret said, "but they have so many problems." To support her cause, Margaret in 1968 formed Friends of the Sea Otter, a nationwide group with a current membership of 2,000. Water pollution is especially dangerous to the otter, Jim Mattison said. "North of Big Sur, raw sewage flows into Monterey Bay near an otter feeding place. We've found infec tious lesions on otters that apparently inter fered with their eating and caused their death." A more direct threat is the occasional sni per. "I've examined several otters with bullet holes," Jim said. When this occurs, suspicion falls upon abalone fishermen, who want a program of otter population management. California otters have continued to expand their territory. Besides appearing in Monterey Bay, they have lately been seen in the Cambria area, just south of the refuge. "The 100-mile reserve probably now sup ports its maximum otter population," Mel Odemar told me. "If the refuge could hold more, they'd remain there." California biologists tried to move otters from commercial abalone beds back to the refuge in 1969. An observer recalled, "It was like trying to pour more water into a full glass. The otters just 'ran over' and spilled from the refuge again." Alaskan Otters Die Mysteriously Long before this controversy erupted, sea otters had aroused my interest. In 1947 the noted marine mammalogist Dr. Victor B. Scheffer and I, aboard the fur-seal research vessel Black Douglas, noticed otters in Con stantine Harbor at Amchitka. Vic, then in his early forties, was known as "that young-look ing, white-haired seal doctor"; he was biol ogist in charge of fur-seal research for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.* Elmer Hanson, the harbor master, greeted us when we landed at the dock. "We're surveying the migration route of fur seals," Vic explained to him, adding, "We'd like to see some sea otters while we're here." "You're in the right place," Elmer laughed. "We've got hundreds, maybe thousands." His face darkening, he added, "Lately I've been finding dead otters, but I don't know what's killing them. It's a mystery." In his jeep we drew up on a point and *See "The Fur Seal Herd Comes of Age," by Victor B. Scheffer and Karl W. Kenyon, GEOGRAPHIC, April 1952.