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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

beach closure group 400x300From left to right: Laird Henkel (CDFW), Stephen Bachman (CA State Parks), Lilian Carswell (USFWS), Gena Bentall (Sea Otter Savvy), Colleen Young (CDFW), Michelle Staedler, and Andy Johnson (Monterey Bay Aquarium)

One fence + twelve signs + seven agencies + sea otter bachelors = the best sea otter haul out beach in California!

beach closure trioThe picturesque town of Moss Landing, California lies at the mid-way point between the cities of Monterey and Santa Cruz on Monterey Bay. It has long been known as one of the best places in California to view sea otters in the wild, and has several locations where those wishing to watch or photograph sea otters may do so from a safe distance for both sea otters and humans. Making this location even more special, is the opportunity to observe sea otter behavior that is not often witnessed: coming ashore to rest. While researchers have documented healthy sea otters coming ashore---a behavior known as hauling out--- in California, Alaska, Canada, and Russia, in populous California they often do so at hidden locations or at nighttime when they feel safe from disturbance by humans. At moderate tides when Jetty Beach, on the west side of Moss Landing’s north harbor, is exposed just enough to allow space for napping, observant viewers may spot some of the male sea otters from the nearby bachelor raft coming out onto the sand to groom their fur and rest.

Why would these marine mustelids, adapted in so many ways to an aquatic existence, come out onto land where their movements are often awkward and slow? Researchers studying this behavior have found that, once on land, sea otters’ body temperature warms more rapidly and stays warmer longer than when they rest in the water.  This means more time resting and less energy devoted to keeping their internal temperature stable in a cold-water environment. Access to safe haul-outs is especially important to sea otters that are food-stressed and struggling to meet their basic caloric requirements. Additionally, sea otters that are sick or injured may also haul out. A safe haul-out location for these compromised animals may mean the difference between life and death.

beach closure people 285x300Beach goers approach hauled out sea otters at Jetty Beach. photo Brenda DutkiewiczThis opportunity to view this interesting behavior has a darker side. Sheltered inside the north jetty, Jetty Beach is a popular location for families, beachcombers, and kayakers to enjoy a beach experience that is relatively protected from the open ocean. Perhaps not understanding the harm, people are drawn to sea otters on the beach, their curious approach usually disturbing resting otters and scaring them into the water. On busy days, it is possible for every sea otter that attempts to haul out to be harassed by people.

What is the harm? Sea otters that are disturbed and forced into the water waste vital energy, and lose the energy-conserving opportunity hauling out provides. Repeated disturbance of this kind can become very energetically costly. Chronic harassment may also result in habituated sea otters that have lost some or all of their natural fear of people. These bold sea otters can become aggressive and are capable of biting and inflicting serious injury. Direct contact can also come with the risk of transmission of disease (both to and from the sea otter) to people and their pets. By repeated encroachment for our own pleasure, we are depriving sea otters of the space all wild animals need to live healthy, less stressful lives.

beach closure signs 2 300x225In spring of last year, the idea to set aside this important habitat for sea otters was first proposed. Reports of disturbance and harassment of hauled-out sea otters at Jetty Beach were increasingly frequent and the Sea Otter Cam of the “otter-centric” website, was recording incident after incident of hauled-out sea otters being harassed by people.

While the idea to close this beach to provide a safe haul-out for the sea otters seemed simple, the complexity of ownership of this small bit of land, required cooperation and agreement from a number of agencies and organizations. This process, while at times frustratingly slow, resulted in a beach closure working laird 300x200Multi-agency work group on installation day. photo L Henkelsolution that was well worth the patience and effort: Jetty Beach now belongs to the sea otters, birds and other marine wildlife of Moss Landing Harbor. On Friday, June 30, 2017, many of those who had been working to make this happen, came out to take on the final task---installation of the fence closing the beach---together. 

It is our hope that the beach closure will make Jetty Beach even more appealing to sea otters seeking warm up opportunities on a sheltered sandy shore. The sea otters of Moss Landing, whether in the water or on shore, may be readily observed from the parking lot near the end of Jetty Road. Just steps from your vehicle (and at a sea otter savvy distance) you may see and photograph sea otters just going about their "sea ottery" business. Come back again next year---I’d be willing to bet you’ll find even more sea otters on Jetty Beach taking advantage of a safe protected place to get the rest they need.

beach closure group HOSea otters rest ashore and in the water at Jetty Beach

Thanks to those that collaborated to make this happen:

California State Parks

Monterey Bay Aquarium (special thanks to the Sea Otter Program’s Andy Johnson for taking the lead on organizing this project)

US Fish and Wildlife Service

California Department of Fish and Wildlife

US Army Corps of Engineers

Sea Otter Savvy

Alternative family friendly beaches in the Monterey Bay area:

By guest writer Scott Kathey, Federal Regulatory Coordinator, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaryscott kathy kayaker otter 400x267

The southern sea otter is protected under federal laws as both a marine mammal and a threatened species. Sea otters don’t have a blubber layer like seals and must consume up to one quarter of their body weight a day to stay warm in the frigid waters of central California. When they’re not feeding to maintain their high metabolism, they are sleeping to recharge from all the hard work of foraging. These critical life patterns are easily disrupted by human presence. In popular recreation areas, such disturbances can occur repeatedly throughout the day.

Just as repeated interruption of a person’s sleep and meals day-after-day can lead to increased stress and sickness in humans, it has the same effect on sea otters. But unlike humans, sea otters live on a narrow margin of survival in harsh ocean conditions. Your interruption of sea otters’ routines—compounded by disturbance from other sources—can lead to severe fatigue, malnourishment, physiological stress, a weakened immune system, disease, and finally death. But anxious spectators will never see their part in this tragic sequence of events. They will simply be satisfied that they captured the close-up photos they wanted for their scrapbook or social media page. The otter they leave behind will have to contend with hundreds more such encounters a month—trying to survive heavy seas, sharks, shifting food resources, pollutants, and disease while being repeatedly pursued by boaters, kayakers, paddle boarders, beachgoers, and now, aerial drones.

For these reasons, the U.S. Government has protected sea otters under several federal laws. That protection includes a prohibition against disturbing sea otters by causing them to change their normal behavior in any way. The simple act of causing a resting otter to turn its face toward you is considered “harassment” under the law.

Many people do things purposely to attract an otter’s attention. They equate an otter’s gaze with that of their pet at home, mistakenly thinking that the otter somehow likes their attention. It does not. It’s actually on high alert, planning its next move should the spectator approach closer. When an otter raises its head up to get a better view, it is not curious or eager to meet the onlooker - it is carefully evaluating what it perceives as “a potential threat”. Its heart rate quickens and its body produces adrenaline that drains valuable energy it needs to survive. If the threat moves away, it takes an otter about 15 minutes to resume what it was doing before the disturbance—just enough time for the next person to come along. If the threat moves closer, then the effects of the disturbance intensify even more.

Sea otter observers should closely watch otter reactions as they approach otters from a distance. Observers should begin focusing on an otter’s behavior when 50 yards away. Observers should NEVER surround an otter or approach an otter by paddling or walking directly toward the animal. Instead, they should choose a diagonal path to the side of the animal. If at any time an otter turns its face toward observers, they should immediately stop, approach no closer, and may need to move further away. Even if otters don’t react to observer presence, observers should NEVER approach otters closer than 50 feet.
Remember: “Be on guard at 50 yards, and do not sneak past 50 feet.

If you witness sea otter disturbance in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary that you think should be reported, you can help by collecting as much detailed information about the incident and people causing the disturbance as possible. If you can quietly capture video or photos of the disturbance without alerting the person(s) causing the disturbance, such records can be very helpful to subsequent enforcement efforts. You can report marine mammal disturbance incidents to the NOAA Enforcement Hotline anytime at 1-800-853-1964. But it’s best to report problems as soon as possible. The sanctuary’s website offers helpful reporting contacts and reporting tips.

scott kathey portrait 300x225Scott Kathey at work in the Monterey Bay National Marine SanctuaryFederal penalties for harassing sea otters can range from hundreds of dollars in fines to criminal prosecution, depending on the circumstances. But random enforcement actions can’t repair the avoidable and unnecessary damage caused by many people. It’s critical that the public help protect these magnificent wild animals by voluntarily watching them from a respectful distance and allowing them room to survive and thrive.

hbarrett otter tracking 400x300Moss Landing Marine Laboratories' graduate student Heather Barrett spotting sea otters 

Guest writer and graduate student, Heather Barrett, introduces a new collaboration between Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, UC Santa Cruz, and Sea Otter Savvy studying the effect of human-caused disturbance on sea otters living in and around Monterey Bay. 

The crisp morning begins with stretches, a barrel role here and there, and one of the members breaking off to search for a crab breakfast. The raft bobs as the distant boat wake lifts each otter in a wave; rocking them gently in a water cradle. There are five mothers with cotton-ball pups that begin the tedious nursing and grooming process, lifting the plush bodies and breathing warm air in to their Einstein frizz. But the calm morning routines will soon be disrupted and turn to disorder. The bright colored beasts have arrived, aiming the kayak bows towards the otter raft, paddles drumming as they hit the surface of the water.

jetty raft 2 kayaks 300x221Kayakers approach a sea otter raft in Moss Landing, CAMost human disturbance is unintentional. However, this naiveté does not eliminate the potential behavioral or physiological consequences for wildlife. Simply our presence, especially when too close, can impact certain species by initiating a stress response. Stress hormones release, causing an increase in heart rate, rise in blood pressure, suppression of feeding and reproduction, and modulation of immune function 1. This is critical in acute stress response, for it allows for a quick reaction during a potentially threatening situation. But what if this becomes chronic?

Chronic stress leads to prolonged exposure to these stress hormones, which can cause muscle wasting, bone thinning, reproductive failure, and immune deficiency 1. These physiological responses are usually undetected in wildlife, which can portray a false sense of acceptability for disturbance 2. Behavioral responses tend to be clearer since they are visually detectable. Individuals will become alert, move away, and show avoidance or even aggression 3. All which have an energetic cost. With these varying responses, why is disturbance particularly a concern for sea otters?

As a keystone species, sea otters have a disproportionate effect on their surrounding environment, enhancing local biodiversity 4. They exhibit this strong influence on their coastal community through their voracious appetite, controlling grazer populations 4. With little fat storage and only dense fur to keep warm, sea otters use their high metabolic rate to maintain their internal temperature in a cold marine environment. Since they use energy to keep warm, they must consume a quarter of their body weight in food each day to fuel this heat production 5.

So picture an exhausted sea otter mother: using energy for lactation, heat production, foraging, and pup care; imagine what it would be like to have constant disturbance from people recreating in the bay. If already living near physiological limits, what is the energetic consequence when human disturbance increases the cost? To answer this, it is important to understand the types of disturbance and create a baseline of behavioral response.

hbarrett jetty rdHeather monitoring the bachelor raft in Moss LandingSea Otter Savvy is spearheading the sea otter disturbance data collection with citizen science and educating the public through outreach programs. As a graduate student at Moss Landing Marine laboratories, I am thrilled to participant in the data collection and honored to use this information. I will couple this with the previously collected metabolic data from University of California Santa Cruz5,6 to investigate the energetic cost of disturbance of sea otters in Monterey Bay. This unique collaboration, and inclusion of graduate research, benefits the scientific community, the public, and can provide information to agencies making wildlife policy and management decisions.

If you are interested in learning more about Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, please visit the website:
You are also encouraged to visit the Laboratories’ Open House this weekend April 29th and 30th. Come experience marine science and hear about the graduate student projects! 

1. Hill, R.W., Wyse, G.A., Anderson, M. and Anderson, M., 2004. Animal physiology (Vol.2). Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates.
2. Sorice, M.G., Shafer, C.S. and Scott, D., 2003. Managing endangered species within the use/preservation paradox: understanding and defining harassment of the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). Coastal Management, 31(4), pp.319-338
3. Gill, J.A., Sutherland, W.J. and Watkinson, A.R., 1996. A method to quantify the effects of human disturbance on animal populations. Journal of appliedEcology,pp.786-792.
4. Estes, J.A. and Palmisano, J.F., 1974. Sea otters: their role in structuring nearshore communities. Science, 185(4156), pp.1058-1060.
5. Thometz, N.M., Tinker, M.T., Staedler, M.M., Mayer, K.A. and Williams, T.M., 2014. Energetic demands of immature sea otters from birth to weaning: implications for maternal costs, reproductive behavior and population-level.
6. Yeates, L.C., Williams, T.M. and Fink, T.L., 2007. Diving and foraging energetics of the smallest marine mammal, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Journal of Experimental Biology, 210(11), pp.1960-1970.



A sea otter crossing Jetty Road in Moss Landing. Photo by Natsuko FujimotoA sea otter crossing Jetty Road in Moss Landing. Photo by Natsuko Fujimoto

A car would, at first thought, seem an unlikely hazard for a marine mammal. In our desire for access to the once rugged, wild places near the ocean, we have made a formidable foe of our vehicles for some of the sea-going mammals that spend time on the shore. Sea lions, elephant seals, and yes, a much-loved sea otter, have met their death in encounters with vehicles. Why did the sea otter cross the road? The answer to this iconic children's riddle, "To get to the other side" is the truth, in part. A sea otter might cross the road to get to the other side, where some needed resource—prey, mates, a safe place to rest—beckons with enough urgency to draw a heavy weasel, built for a life in the sea, to find its land legs.

In the coastal town of Moss Landing, California, there are two places where sea otters are known to venture onto and across paved roads to travel between resources. At both locations, sea otters are able to cross from one side to the other via man-made tidal culverts that pass beneath the roadway, but some circumstances---very low tides, rushing currents, or the tide-regulated closure of culvert gates---may force the otter to resort to crossing the road to return to a resting spot or to get access to a foraging area. 

otter forage moro cojoSea otter foraging on clams in Moro-Cojo Slough Along a narrow section of Jetty Road near the entrance to Moss Landing State Beach, sea otters have long been observed crossing between the north harbor and the neighboring Bennett Slough, where a small number find habitat for foraging and resting. Opportunistic observations by sea otter biologists indicate that during ebb tides, when the current is too strong for a sea otter to swim successfully against it through the culverts, and low tides, when the culverts contain little or no water, a sea otter may cross on the road, where they are at risk of being struck by passing vehicles. There is also evidence that they cross during high, or even King Tide conditions, so it is clear more research is needed to better understand road crossing behavior. This uncertainty need not preclude action.  Recently sea otter researcher Natalie Uomini captured footage of a sea otter crossing Jetty Road. This dramatic video underscores how a split second may mean the difference between a dead or injured sea otter and one safely at home in the slough. Slow and vigilant driving is essential for preventing a tragedy. 

flicker vidVideo by Natalie Uomini

jetty crossing sign 400Sea otter crossing sign at Jetty Road in Moss LandingIn July of 2016, a male sea otter famous for making his home in the south harbor of Moss Landing, near the popular Whole Enchilada restaurant, was struck and killed on Moss Landing Road by a vehicle. He had been returning to the harbor after a nighttime foraging bout in Moro-Cojo Slough. The tragic death of "Mr. Enchilada" prompted management authorities and the local community to come together to take steps to prevent a reoccurrence. Monterey County Public Works instituted a speed limit reduction at the Moss Landing Road crossing and placed signs warning drivers of sea otter crossing activity. They were the first traffic signs of their kind, and the image of a walking sea otter had to be custom-designed. A few months later, in response to concerns that traffic had been little slowed by the signs, Public Works installed a well-marked speed table. The worldwide first of a sea otter crosswalk attracted media interest and garnered praise for Public Works. The Jetty Road crossing, which is under the jurisdiction of California State Parks, is now also marked by signs, and additional measures to reduce vehicle speed were recently installed under a grant from the California State Coastal Conservancy CA Sea Otter Fund.

moss speed table 400x400Speed table at Moss Landing Road

We have dissected so many wild places with our roads, with little consideration for the less visible trails and pathways made by our non-human neighbors. In the case of sea otters, warning drivers and slowing the vehicles on the road surface seem like a minimum first step. The best solution would be to keep them off the roadways entirely by making space for travel corridors beneath. This next step will require research on sea otter crossing behavior, well-informed design, public will, and significant funding—but considering the ecological and financial rewards that sea otters bring to our communities, isn’t it only right that we help sea otters find safe passage through our road infrastructure as they travel their own pathways to the places where they forage and rest? 

Many agenecies, organizations, and community members work together to continue to make the roads of Moss Landingsafe for sea otters. Along with Monterey County Public Works, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, CA Department of Fish and Wildlife, Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, California State Parks, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Moss Landing residents, Defenders of Wildlife, and Sea Otter Savvy are all insturmntal in the Sea Otter Xing (SOX) project. You can do your part by slowing down at SOXs and driving with caution anywhere wildlife must cross roads.