Sea Otter Population on the Upswing Along the Coast
By Mabel Plaskett
The sea otter (Enhydra Lutris) lives along the shore of the Pacific from the Aleutian Islands to Baja California.
Prior to exploitation by fur traders, it is assumed the number of these creatures abounding in these coastal waters ran into the millions.
As early as 1742 the Russians were hunting otters in the Aleutians and Yankee traders sailed the long way around South America to see what they could find in the Pacific Ocean. They, as well as British and French ships, reached Sitka, the capital of Russians America, but in 1799 a Russian American Company was established its charter giving exclusive rights to American trade.
A SECOND CHAPTER running from 1821 to 1842 resulted in a certain amount of conservation as rules were made to harvest male pelts only.
Exploitation of the otter was brought about not only by the Russians. The French and British hunted them ruthlessly and the American fur trader was the biggest exploiter of all.
Total number of otters taken during the 126 years of Russian occupation was close to 800,000.
The fur business was good, but life in Sitka was hard. Grain and vegetables would not grow in that cold climate. The people almost starved and were often sick with scurvy. The news came that there were otters along the coast of California and in 1911 the officer in command at Sitka sent a ship to California.
THE RUSSIANS took with them a company of Indians from the Aleutian Islands who were good otter hunters. They looked over the country around Bodega Bay, found many otters and came back the next year with enough people to start a town and founded Fort Ross about 20 miles north of Bodega Bay.
There, they built a stockade with strong walls. They had good guns, plenty of ammunitions and cannons for protection against the Spaniards who had made a law against trading with people of other lands. However, the Russians were not bothered very much as Mexico was fighting for independence from Spain at that time.
The Russians raised enough food to eat and sent some to their friends in the north.
Much smuggling of otter furs was done in those days. Ships would anchor off the shore at San Francisco, Monterey and Santa Catalina and the captains would come ashore for food and water and on dark nights would pick up otter skins to fill the holds of their ships. The Californians were glad to trade for whatever they could get and this secret trade flourished in spite of the law.
AFTER THE revolution California was called the Republic of Mexico. After 53 years of Spanish rule since Captain Portola’s time. Now the law was done away with and the fur trade flourished.
The principle market for otter furs was China where the winters are cold. Otter skins in perfect condition were worth from $1,000 to $5,000 each and one rich East Indian potentate paid $8,000 for a single perfect pelt. That is the largest sum ever known to be paid for an otter fur.
It was not surprising that those who could afford furs preferred otter, the bearer of the most beautiful fur in the world, deep and soft and silky of dark brown color with long white tipped hairs scattered through it giving it a frosted appearance that makes it so valuable. It is said the fur trade drew more people to California than the Gold rush did.
Lewis and Clark found the Clatsop Indians wore otter fur and valued them highly.
Otters are gentle creatures unafraid of man, easily killed with clubs and spears and the herds diminished until in 1910 two American vessels obtained only 16 pelts and two British vessels, seven. The seasons total take in that season was 34.
IN 1911 THE Fur Seal Treaty gave protection to the sea otter and seal. This treaty is still in effect and was further extended in 1913 by the establishing of a Wild Life Refuge in the Aleutians.
The extent of American exploitation is indicated by the fact that in the four years following the Alaska purchase in 1867 more than 12,000 pelts were taken in the Aleutians.
In 1920 real restrictions were put on the hunting of otters. A new full seal treaty made it a felony to possess one. Later it was changed to a misdemeanor with a fine of $1,000 or one year in jail.
For years one scarcely ever glimpsed an otter and it was believed they were extinct along our coast until in 1938 when Mr. and Mrs. H. D. Sharp of Carmel, taking a drive down the coast, sighted a small herd off Rocky Point.
The Hopkins Marine Laboratories at Pacific Grove identified them as sea otters, and under the protective laws they are slowly increasing in number. Dr. Richard Boolotian, while working at Hopkins Marine Station where he took his doctorate degree on sea otters estimated in 1956 there were about 600 between Yankee Point in Monterey County and Point Conception in Santa Barbara County and at present the population in the same area is about 1,200. Count was taken by helicopter, aircraft and boat.
OTTER INCREASE slowly as they are not prolific mammals, averaging one pup to 12 adults.
The otter is about the size of a mastiff dog, four feet in length with a tail a foot long and weights from 50 to 80 pounds. The hind feet are webbed, the front feet somewhat like a dogs and adapted for holding food and their young, while resting or swimming on their backs as they always do.
They spend most of their time in the water in the huge beds of bull kelp where they sleep and have their young. They keep the pup at their side for 15 months having to teach it to swim. A mother may be seen among the rocks close to shore lying on her back holding her baby aloft, playing with it much as a human mother would do.
They range close to shore seldom over 200 yards out. They are seen along the shore of Monterey County in the sheltered coves. We saw 30 otters playing on the rocks on the little beach at the mouth of Alder Creek last year, and they are often seen near Harlan point. Several years ago during a violent storm Mr. and Mrs. Warren Smith saw a large otter at Lovers Point lying on his back in the pounding breakers calmly eating an abalone.
The favorite foods of the sea otter are sea urchins, mussels, which they break open by pounding them on a rock which they hold on their chest with one paw, abalone and occasionally fish. They cleverly wait for an abalone to relax then with a quick grasp of its paw detaches it from the rock to which it had clung.
THE OTTER IS a friendly creature. The Patterson place on the Carmel Riviera has a sheltered cove where an otter made himself so much at home he was regarded as a family pet.
Before they were protected, the otter was hunted along the Monterey County coast. Captain Cooper, a Yankee trader, made many trips to China with these furs. Others hunted the otter also until one was seldom seen, but it was here in the isolated covers of this wild coast region they found sanctuary and were able to survive and gradually increase.
Now there has been established along this coast a sea otter refuge to cover all the area west of Highway 1 from the Carmel River to Santa Rosa Creek in San Luis Obispo County approximately 110 miles.
According to Game Warden Warren Smith (himself an authority on sea otters) not too much has been learned about them. It is hoped as their herds increase more interest will be taken in these friendly, lovable and amusing creatures and more research made possible into their life and habits.
One may see a mounted specimen at the Pacific Grove Museum where three of them are on exhibit in a glass case.
OTTER MAY be taken only for educational purposes with special permission. Dr. Richard Boolotian, professor of zoology at UCLA, has studied the otter extensively and has written his findings. Edna K. Fisher, former instructor at San Francisco State University, spent her last two years studying the sea otter and wrote a 167 page paper on them, which is now tied up in her estate but when available will, with Dr. Boolotian’s paper, make a fairly complete study of these mammals.
More than two centuries have passed since man began hunting the otter. His greed nearly led to their extinction. And now once more they have a safe refuge along our coastal shore where they may live without fear, swimming about in their droll fashion rolling and twisting or lie on a rock eating a succulent abalone held in both paws.
Mabel Sans Plaskett was born in Coralitas near Ben Lomond in the Santa Cruz Mountain area of California. Her father Edward Robert Sans ran a saw mill near Pacific Valley, along the Nacimiento – Ferguson road to the coast at Highway One. It was there she met Edward Abbott Plaskett, her husband. Mabel wrote about the coast and the pioneers of the 19th and 20th Centuries.