Interacting with sea otters of the Central Coast: Welcome back, but please keep your distance

MOSS LANDING — After six months of relative peace in the waters off the Central Coast, sea otters are being threatened by the return of the weekend boating and water recreation crowds.

While many activities are still restricted due to COVID-19, fishing, kayaking and paddle boarding are not. Seeking respite from a summer of lockdown, tourists have been flocking to the coast. Since the reopening of marine recreation businesses in late May, the waters off places such as Moss Landing and Cannery Row have become busy again. This is putting a strain on the local wildlife, especially for Monterey’s favorite furry friends.

The return of boaters and kayakers in the Elkhorn Slough and other locations poses a health challenge for local sea otters. (Monterey Herald file) 

“Sea otters, among marine mammals, are especially vulnerable to human disturbance,” said Gena Bentall, director and senior scientist with Sea Otter Savvy. “What we’re talking about in this case is mainly recreational activities where people get too close.”

Sea otters may be North America’s smallest marine mammal, but they play a huge role in the coastal ecosystems they call home. By eating sea urchins in kelp forests and crabs in estuaries, sea otters help keep these ecosystems in balance. Because of the critical and outsized influence, they have on their environments, sea otters are considered a keystone species. Sea Otter Savvy calls them ecosystem “superheroes.”

Tracking sea otters

Since 2015, Sea Otter Savvy has had a team of volunteer community scientists collecting data at seven different sites along the Central Coast, but the pandemic has put that on pause.

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“We have been in suspended animation since March, as so many people have, because our teams are voluntary and they haven’t been able to go out due to the COVID-19 situation,” said Bentall.

With no hard data to go by, Bentall and her team have been relying on time-lapse videos of the waterways and anecdotal evidence like phone calls from concerned bystanders.

(View a time-lapse video of change in traffic in Elkhorn Slough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG1zWsV9wfw&feature=youtu.be)

“I was getting daily reports from the public, people going crazy on jetskis – it was essentially mayhem,” said Bentall of the scene at Elkhorn Slough on a typical pandemic weekend.

All over the country, kayak and paddleboard shops are seeing record sales. In Monterey, where marine recreation businesses began reopening in late May, paddle shops, like Monterey Bay Kayaks, have been consistently selling out of rentals and equipment.

“We’re getting a lot of people who normally might not be going kayaking,” said Cass Schrock, owner of Monterey Bay Kayaks. Customers have “heard about the sea otters at Elkhorn Slough but really don’t know anything about the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary. We’ve got a whole new demographic we’re dealing with … People are definitely looking for something to do.”

At shops that are doing rentals, employees are working hard to teach people to be mindful of wildlife. “We’re doing a lot more education,” said Schrock. “We have information on our website, waivers we send beforehand that say ‘I will not get close to …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment

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