Otterly Kelpless

An
Interview with UC Davis Wildlife Epidemiologist, Dr. Christine Kreuder.

Recently,
on an assignment for the New York Times, I traveled up the California
coast to Santa Cruz and Monterrey to write an article on a series of diseases
that are killing California’s Southern Sea Otters, and in fact, may threaten
their survival as a species.

In the late
1800’s and early 1900’s, otters ranged from southern Baja all the way
to Alaska. But the animals were hunted to near extinction. In fact, they
were thought to be all gone in California until scientists were astounded
when a population of around 100 or so was discovered off the Big Sur coast
in 1938.

From that
time, a major effort was made to protect sea otters and their numbers
began climbing at about a 5 percent rate per year. But then, in the mid
1990’s researchers found that the number of otters along the coast had
stopped increasing and that their population seemed to have peaked at
around 2300. Last year, an otter count only found 2100 of the animals
— an alarming decline. Part of the reason? Disease caused by introduced
animals and urban runoff.

To find out
more, I interviewed Dr. Christine Kreuder of U.C. Davis at a picnic table
overlooking The Hook, one of the southernmost of Santa Cruz’s Pleasure
Point breaks. A wildlife veterinarian of some nine years, Dr. Kreuder
is about to release an article in the Journal of Wildlife Disease on a
study she conducted with California Fish and Game, U.C. Davis and number
of other respected schools. The article lays out a pretty grim picture
for California’s sea otters.

As a nice,
head high west swell rolled in, Dr. Kreuder described her research. About
fifty surfers competed for waves, while a crew of ten or so otters bobbed
serenely on the outside. Occasionally the otters would roll themselves
up in kelp, or take time to preen their fur, but mostly they just sat
on the outside, doing what otters do and puzzling over what the strange
creatures with the big heads were doing on the inside.

The interview
with Dr. Kreuder should be of interest to surfers all along the Central
Coast who value both the otters and the kelp that keeps the water glassy.
Without sea otters, the waters you guys surf in are apt to become a lot
less filled with kelp. This is because sea urchins feast on kelp roots.
But otters feast on urchins. Keeping nature in balance, the water glassy
and surfers smiling. But something up here has gone terribly wrong, and
it has a lot to do with our onshore habits. Read on and learn something.