Lost amidst the sound and fury of Republican primary politics, small earthquakes in San Francisco, and other minor disasters was some news out of the Monterey Bay Aquarium that left me sad and a little bit bitter: on March 3rd, early in the morning, Toola the sea otter passed away. And a little bit of me died along with her.
Toola was a consummate ambassador, from the sea otter world to the human one. She moved into the aquarium in 2001, and immediately took over the duties of caring for young rescued sea otters from the humans who had been handling it (poorly) up until that point. She also inspired the aquarium to train other female sea otters to be foster mothers, something they had never tried before. (This despite a crippling case of epilepsy caused by toxoplasmosis, for which she had to be medicated twice a day.) And when a certain California legislator (named, amusingly enough, Dave Jones) brought his son to visit the aquarium one day, Toola was front and center among the otters on display.
When Will Jones heard about the problems the otters were facing, he turned to his dad with tears in his eyes and said, "Dad, can't you do something to help them?" And his dad could do something, and did do something... certainly more than I've ever been able to do. But our best ambassador is dead now, and it doesn't look like anyone's done nearly enough. Or, given the realities of government today, that anyone is likely to, before it's too late.
So, you probably have some questions. That's okay, I have some answers:
What are the problems they're facing? Well, the link above is a pretty good (and very recent) story about the particulars, but in general, there is no real agreement as to the cause, although there are many candidates. Since the early 1900s, their numbers have been slowly rebounding from what was thought to be extinction (at least off the California coast) up to about 2700 in 2007. And then, for whatever reason, they began to decline again. This is the third year in a row that the three-year average population has gone down, and if nobody does anything, this trend is likely to continue, or even accelerate.
Why do I say this isn't nearly enough? Because this fund, along with a small amount of money dedicated to sea otter research at Monterey Bay Aquarium, is the only money being spent on research into this problem. (Barring some possible low-budget, though potentially important, work being done at a couple of universities.) And because although there are nearly 38 million people in California, the fund last year raised a (record-breaking!) total of $359,699, or well under one cent per person in California. Hell, that's less than $150 per otter.
Think about that for a minute. We can't dedicate any money from the state treasury. We can't dedicate any national funds to it, although an effort was made a couple of years ago to do so. And the citizens of California are only willing to toss
in a penny apiece.
Mind you, that money stretches farther than you would expect. This is because the scientists working on these projects are already employed by the state. When there is funding for a sea otter project, they generally manage to sandwich it in between their other priorities. But still, even without having to pay the salaries, $360k is hardly much money in the world of scientific research.
And this year it's liable to be even less than it was last year. The man who was one of the prime movers in the effort to raise awareness of the Sea Otter Fund in California, Jim Curland, was laid off from his job at Defenders of Wildlife, which has largely ceased to track the sea otter issue at all. It's not their fault: their income over the past three years has plummeted. But it means that one of the major voices for raising awareness of the Sea Otter Fund is no longer at it. (Incidentally, if you know of an organization that is looking for a stellar sea-otter-consciousness-raiser, please do leave me a note, so I can forward it to Jim!)
So what can I do? Well, there's the problem: I have no idea. Obviously, if you're in California, you should donate to the Sea Otter Fund when you do your taxes. But let's face it: with our current Governor (yes, I voted for him, but I don't hold any illusions that he's really a liberal any more) and legislature, and the budget crisis, there's no chance that any state money will end up dedicated to the sea otters. And it's only slightly more likely that the federal government will end up revisiting the Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act: although the Act had broad bipartisan support at the time, now that Obama has set his sites on deficit reduction and the Republicans have elected to defeat even popular legislation that could be construed to appeal to Democrats, we're not likely to see any movement on this sort of thing.
So all I can really see happening, if we're really lucky, is tiny bits of research chipping away slowly at the ignorance surrounding this subject. And then, once we've found the culprit, it is highly likely to end up being a combination of factors: coastal pollution, lack of food, predation. And actually addressing any of those will, if we're lucky, take years more of effort. And that's if California decides it has the political will to limit agricultural runoff, to find some way of purifying storm runoff, to limit fishing, or whatever else it takes to fix these problems. This is not going to be easy stuff. And that's assuming we don't end up with offshore oil drilling rigs and a gulf-sized oil spill that kills them all outright — a distinct possibility, given the rhetoric from both Republicans and the administration these days.
I don't know. I just know that Toola, at least, was an incredible ambassador from the sea otters to the human beings. What I don't know is, was anybody listening?
Tue Mar 06, 2012 at 11:48 PM PT: Update: Have to head to bed. If anyone asks any questions, I'll be happy to answer tomorrow morning. (PDT). Us otters need our beauty rest!