Marine Mysteries

The main component of what was once a key industry in many parts of the world, has been resurfacing in the public eye for quite a while now, but recently has become a main issue for those politically and/or environmentally minded, especially along the Pacific Coast of the United States.

Guess Who?

For a little over two centuries, the sea otter fur trade blossomed throughout the Northwest, and the population declined steadily and heavily until roughly 1911, when an international treaty signed by Russia, Japan,  Great Britain, and the United States cut down on the depletion of the otter population in most of its main habitats. Interestingly enough, the entire sea otter population in Washington, which at one point ranged from the Columbia River to the Olympic Peninsula, was completely obliterated in 1910, but made a surprising comeback when the species was reintroduced in 1969-1970. Along the California Coast as well, otters have resurged massively, going from a nearly extinct population of around fifty in the Monterey area in 1938 to approximately three thousand in the mid-2000s.

However, this rise in otter population has led to a conflict with the shellfish industry, whose fisherman and divers compete for the same food source that the otters do. This problem escalated to the point where a “no-otter zone” was implemented in Southern California in 1987,  where sea otters were relocated at roughly the cost of $10,000 per otter from the waters of Point Conception approximately one-hundred-and-sixty miles north of Los Angeles to the California border with Mexico. As expected, this plan devised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was almost a complete failure. After twenty-five years of intense debate with environmental groups and advocate agencies, the “no-otter zone” was finally abolished in December 2012.


Henry Liquornik, who has been an urchin diver for quite some time, shares what he feels is the opinion of most of his colleagues, describing the otters as a very real threat to the estimated $10 million-a-year urchin industry, consuming about fifteen pounds of abalone, mussels, crabs, snails, and urchins a day. This opinion however is likely to lose out to the overwhelming support for the furry, cute sea mammals.

However, the industry hasn’t given up, and with recent estimates of otter populations slightly on the decline due to great white shark attacks, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for what the LA Times interprets as “illegally terminating the program [“no-otter zone”] without congressional approval or authorization.” Pacific Legal Attorney Jonathan Wood has been carefully poignant in his arguments, pointing out that the “no-otter zone” is greatly needed to prevent otters from “ravaging fragile nearby fisheries and destroying local economies.”

With the California Abalone Association, the California Lobster and Trap Fishermen’s Association, Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, and the California Sea Urchin Commission to represent, this ongoing battle looks like another case of corporations vs the people. With organizations like Friends of the Sea Otter and Defenders of Wildlife to back up the general populace, another case of the “righteous democracy overthrowing the privileged corporate dictators.”

(Courtesy of Asher Jaffe)


4 thoughts on “Marine Mysteries

  1. I had no idea that sea otters caused such a big problem for fishermen OR that they were killed for their fur! I wonder what it was used for/who was in the market for sea otter fur. I live on Vashon Island in the middle of the Puget Sound and it is always so amazing when a little sea otter pops up and swims around the docks or ferries. You mentioned that sea otters were relocated and it costed around $10000 per sea otter. Were they just captured by people and moved? or were they trapped? How were people able to relocate all of the sea otters?


  2. This reminds me of our discussions in class that bring up moral dilemmas vs. the economist point of view. From the perspective of an economist, it makes more sense to basically push the otters out of the way, in a sense, so that they don’t take the resources of those fishing industries. However, the general public has a soft spot for cute otter friends, which puts everyone in a bit of a pickle. They could allow the otters to compete with them for resources as they are now, and just severely raise prices of the urchins and shellfish that they are fishing for. But will the public pay for it? The people have to decide: cute sea otters, or reasonably priced shellfish?


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