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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

Hearts and Minds: the 9th California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium

On November 14, 2023, from atop the coastal dunes of Moss Landing, an impassioned group convened with the common goal of protecting the wildlife of the California coast and beyond. Nearly 70 participants at the 9th Annual California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium came to hear presentations from eleven speakers addressing topics in two sessions: user perspectives and outreach messaging as they relate to wildlife disturbance. They joined from as far away as Australia to share their knowledge and experience. They came to meet others from government agencies, non-profit organizations, and local businesses to find common ground, common goals and ways to work together to foster awareness and stewardship.

Wildlife Disturbance: Perspectives from Different User Groups

The morning session explored the different perspectives on wildlife disturbance from within coastal communities. Annie Daw, manager of the Bolsa Chica Reserve Watch program, started off the day by sharing an inspiring story of local volunteers coming together to reduce disturbance to wildlife disturbance in a busy southern California ecological reserve. The unique relationship between surfers and coastal wildlife was highlighted by two speakers: Jess Fujii, Sea Otter Program Manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, provided an insider perspective on the cautionary tale of notorious surfboard-stealing otter 841, and 18-year-old Dakota Peebler (a founding member of the amazing Heirs to Our Ocean, see video below) shared results from her summer project studying the spatial and sociological interactions between sea otters and surfers at two popular Santa Cruz surfing spots. Lessons learned: repeated and, at times, inescapable exposure to humans can have dangerous consequences for both humans and wildlife (See USFWS's 841 FAQs), action by local communities can create powerful conservation action, and that the motivations of people are highly relevant to the nature of their interactions with wildlife and the risk of disturbance. See an overview of Dakota’s results in a virtual version of her poster. Another poster was presented by Samantha Hamilton a recent master’s graduate from Johns Hopkins University, who’s study (conducted with Sea Otter Savvy) evaluated the behavior of kayakers using cameras vs. those not around sea otters at multiple California coastal locations. What’s your guess? Do camera users tend to stay closer or farther than other kayakers? Have a look at Samantha’s poster here to learn her results.

Dave Grigsby (shown in photo above), owner of the Monterey Bay area’s Kayak Connection, gave a refreshing and candid account of the challenges faced by marine recreation businesses and the strategies his shops have adopted to minimize the impact of their customers on coastal wildlife. Dave importantly emphasized the importance of a collaborative attitude among businesses, to work together to protect an ecosystem from which they derive like benefits. Kayak Connection is one of the kayak rental and tour businesses recognized and certified by Sea Otter Savvy's Community Active Wildlife Stewards program.

Wildlife law enforcement representatives are always popular speakers with attendees at this symposium, and Officer Sam Reigner, an Enforcement Officer for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, gave accounts of a few case studies from his experience ensuring compliance with federal laws enacted to protect wildlife off the coast of California. To leave us inspired by the power of collaboration, Richard “Dick” Ogg, a Northern California commercial fisherman, shared his ocean stewardship perspective and how the local fishing community work together to minimize their impact on the coastal ecosystem. From volunteers, photographers, and surfers to commercial fisherman, business owners, and law enforcement officers, the small actions of individuals synergized to create powerful community-based stewardship.

Wildlife Disturbance: Messaging Strategies

In the afternoon, speakers focused on the challenges of changing human-behavior—fostering a social norm where respecting the boundaries of wildlife are the only acceptable actions. As I often say, this is a long game. There are no simple answers, only the wisdom that comes from trying and succeeding or failing. Adam and Giancarlo from The Marine Mammal Center drove home the importance of research and evaluation—understanding the who, what, why, and where or wildlife disturbance—as critical first steps toward creating and targeting effective messaging. In some cases understanding the breadth of the human behavior hurdles is daunting—attendees were caught off guard by some results of their research, in particular, that even the knowledge of the consequences of disturbing wildlife would not deter a significant percentage of people from knowingly doing it. Even if the conclusions are disheartening, knowledge can only strengthen our strategies in the long run. For her second appearance at our symposium, Sara Melena, Communication Specialist for the National Park Service, provided an update on their iconic messaging aimed at preventing both wildlife disturbance and wildlife-related human injury in National Parks. If you are wondering what I mean by iconic, you only need follow their social media or park websites. The stuff is golden.

As a keynote to the wildlife conservation messaging theme, Sarah Bekessy from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology covered highlights from an article on which she was a co-authored: Five Lessons to Guide More Effective Biodiversity Conservation Message Framing.

“Communication and advocacy approaches that influence attitudes and behaviors are key to addressing conservation problems, and the way an issue is framed can affect how people view, judge, and respond to an issue. Responses to conservation interventions can also be influenced by subtle wording changes in statements that may appeal to different values, activate social norms, influence a person’s affect or mood, or trigger certain biases, each of which can differently influence the resulting engagement, attitudes, and behavior.” Kusmanoff et al. 2020

Have you noted the use of the term “social norm” as a goal of wildlife conservation messaging? What does that mean? Social norms are defined as the informal rules that govern behavior in groups and societies by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology. They are not rigid, but plastic, ever-changing in response to trends in human beliefs, expectations, and common knowledge. Social norms are powerful constraints on human behavior, with social sanctions providing the consequences of violating them. I’d argue a social norm of respecting the needs of wildlife exists in a portion of the population. Will we be able to use messaging and the power of active community stewardship to push that social norm passed a tipping point? The goal is to foster and support communities that demonstrate care for nature and wildlife to such an extent organizations like Sea Otter Savvy become unnecessary in all but supportive role.  I will happily accept that demotion.

Would you like to learn more from these presenters? You can review their talk summaries/abstracts HERE. The individual videos of talks from this event will be posted on Sea Otter Savvy's YouTube channel (as soon as we finish editing them). 


Above: Examples of messages creating a large and reduced psychological distance. The would-be campaign poster on left does nothing to reduce psychological distance between the threat to whales and the reader because it has an image of a whale in its natural state (abstract for most people) and emphasizes the threat occurs far away (Antarctica). In contrast, the poster on the right reduces psychological distance by increasing the vividness, emphasizing the threat, making the whale relatable to humans (i.e., the whale is making a plea for help, has tears), avoiding mention that the hunt occurs far away, and seeking to engender a connection to the reader by referring to “our whales. From Kusmanoff et al. 2020

The participants of the first California Coastal Wildlife Disturbance Symposium in 2015

History of this Symposium

Building on a seabird-focused Wildlife Disturbance Symposium organized by Seabird Protection Network in 2013, Sea Otter Savvy has partnered with the Respect Wildlife project to organize this wildlife disturbance symposium since 2015. Our goal from the start has been focused on maximizing the effectiveness of diverse efforts to mitigate human-caused disturbance to coastal wildlife by fostering agreement upon common strategies and messaging, creating a forum for the sharing of new ideas, and supporting collaboration.  After a full day of talks and activities, attendees were invigorated and inspired to return home with new solutions and connections. With human population steadily encroaching on wild lands, our remaining wild animals need champions more than ever. It is clear from the growing interest and participation in this symposium that the momentum of this movement to prevent human-caused wildlife disturbance is growing. Let’s keep the wave of awareness moving forward and work together to create a more peaceful world for our wild neighbors.

Attendees represented these agencies and organizations:

NOAA, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Park Service, CA State Parks, US Fish and Wildlife Service, CA Dept of Fish and Wildlife, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Bureau of Land Management, NOAA–NMFS Office of Law Enforcement, Seabird Protection Network, Sea Otter Savvy, MPA Collaborative Network, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Johns Hopkins University, Heirs to Our Oceans, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Bay Net and Team OCEAN, Friends of the Elephant Seal, The Marine Mammal Center, Kayak Connection, Monterey Bay Kayaks, Monterey Bay Eco Tours, Jeff & Wendy Photography, and others...

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