The lead item in yesterday’s NYTimes California Today column—The Plight of the Sea Otter—caught my eye for its mention of The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC), located here in the Marin Headlands. Several floating homes residents volunteer there on a regular basis. But what really grabbed my attention was the connection made between the vulnerability of the sea otters to a toxin called domoic acid and our own vulnerabilities.
Sea otters are considered to be keystone species—translation: they are fundamental (make or break) to the ecosystems in which they live. Algae blooms—naturally occurring, but increasing due to nutrient-rich fertilizer and waste runoff—are resulting in an alarming increase in harmful domoic acid, which appears toxic to sea otters. What does this mean for us, who eat the same things the sea otters eat?
Some stats from TMMC: as many as 20,000 southern sea otters may have lived along the coasts of California and Baja California at one time, but that is no longer the case. For the last 40 years, southern sea otters have been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act with the population estimated at just a few thousand.
Big Picture: land-sea pollution adversely affects marine life, and ultimately ourselves
Action: volunteer at The Marine Mammal Center
The item—written by NYTimes California Today columnist Mike McPhate—is reposted below.
CALIFORNIA TODAY The Plight of the Sea Otter
In 2016, California wildlife officials recorded the highest ever number of stranded otters, 474. That’s up from 299 a decade earlier.
Many of the otters are mortally wounded by sharks. Some show evidence of disease, and others of poisoning linked to the algal blooms that have also been killing sea lions and menacing the state’s fishing industry.
The blooms occur naturally, but researchers believe they are being intensified by runoff that pushes waste and fertilizer into the Pacific. They release a toxin called domoic acid that winds its way through the marine life food chain.
Melissa Miller, a Department of Fish and Wildlife veterinarian who has overseen hundreds of otter necropsies, said more research was needed to fully understand how domoic acid was harming the otter population.
But she added, “I think we can safely say domoic acid is a big deal in otters. The hard part is how big of a deal.”
Otters are regarded as a keystone species, which means they are essential components of their ecosystem.
That they’re struggling should sound alarm bells not only about potential harms to marine life, but to humans as well, wildlife experts say.
“I see them as sort of a proxy for the bigger issue of land-sea pollution,” said Dr. Miller.
And don’t forget, she added, “We eat a lot of the same things that otters eat. And we clearly see that some of the things that otters are getting are associated with the food that they’re eating.”