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Monday, November 19 , 2018, 6:06 am | Fair 48º


Captain’s Log: Sea Otters Are Cute — But Problematic

The critters, roaming freely and in growing numbers south of Point Conception, are a threat to shellfish.

When the sea otter popped up on the surface, it looked, at first glance, like a young sea lion or harbor seal. It took only a moment, however, for the furry critter to positively identify itself by rolling onto its back and smashing a large tasty shellfish on its chest with fast, strong hands. The way they do that is fascinating to watch. What a skill!

Capt. David Bacon (Ramona Lisa McFadyen photo)
The savory meal was quickly devoured and the critter dove again. Next it came up with a juvenile shellfish but busted and devoured it in a few seconds without consideration for its diminutive size.

It dived again and again and again, voraciously eating a vast variety of shellfish — many of which, I noticed, were juveniles. I was astonished at how much a single sea otter eats. It rarely seems to stop eating. I couldn’t help but wonder how the shellfish population can hold up to such deadly pressure from an increasing sea otter population.

Each time it came up with very small prey, I thought, “There goes another baby shellfish that will never have a chance to reproduce.” I was a little surprised that the sea otter was working repeatedly at depths to 100 feet, but the effort and water pressure didn’t seem to bother the cutesy hunter one bit.

I have seen films of underwater places where shellfish populations were carefully managed for decades until sea otters came south around Point Conception into the federally mandated “otter-free zone” (defined to protect shellfish and the shellfish harvesting industry from the devastating feeding habits of sea otters) and began eating everything — from large shellfish to babies who would never reproduce.

ITherein is a problematic issue. Sea otters are as cute as critters come. I enjoy a cute critter as much as the next person. What bothers me is that I do not believe animal rights should be doled out more liberally to the cutest critters.

I enjoy shellfish, too, although I never understood the term “happy as a clam.” We strive to manage all species for sustainable populations. We strive for a concept termed, “eco-system based management”; however, sea otters slash through the process by leaving a path of destruction and devastation in their wake.

We may be forced to make a decision: halt human consumption of shellfish or move the sea otters. The shellfish population may not be able to withstand pressure from both hunter species.

Sea otters now roam freely and in growing numbers in the otter-free management zone, south of Point Conception. The federal government once had promised to capture and relocate them, yet the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has failed to live up to its promise.

Apparently, they are here to stay, or until another predator claims them. At one time, that was man. Now we protect them from being hunted. Meanwhile, they are indeed fascinating to watch and they have cute down pat. This is a great time of year to jump on a boat to hunt sea otters with cameras. They make great photography subjects: a cute furry critter in the midst of a kelp bed, floating on its back smashing a clam.

Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a new nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need.

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