August 10, 2015

On May 19th, 2015, the noxious smell of burning rubber quickly spread for miles near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara, California. An oil pipeline had ruptured along the coastline, spilling over 100,000 gallons of crude oil onto the beach and into the ocean. The oil traveled quite far, with globs of tar showing up on many southern California beaches, including Redondo Beach located more than 100 miles away from the spill site.

Oiled pelican, © Krista Schlyer/DefendersThis disaster served as a reminder of just how devastating oil spills can be to our natural communities. It also served as a wakeup call for many Californians that these spills remain a persistent threat, even for a state that has made significant strides to protect its natural landscape and wildlife. It is so very clear that more must be done to reduce all potential risk of pipeline spills, even if that means prohibiting pipelines in or near coastal ecosystems and other sensitive habitats. That is why Defenders is supporting a number of progressive bills at the California state legislature that would help prevent and mitigate future oil spills along the coast.

While the spill was small in size and controlled rather quickly (the flowing oil was stopped in a matter of hours), it left hundreds of animals dead or injured, including 16 dolphins, 136 sea lions, and 67 brown pelicans according to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. It was also a major cause of concern for one particularly sensitive species – the Southern sea otter.

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Sea Otters, ©Chip Carroon

The entire population of Southern sea otters exists along the coast of central California with the most southern portion of their range located near Gaviota State Beach, less than 10 miles west of the ruptured pipeline spill. Wind patterns and pure luck kept the crude oil from reaching sea otter habitat, though we may still see impacts from persistent tar in nearby ocean waters.

Southern sea otter, a threatened species under the Federal Endangered Species Act, has only a small population. This and their sensitivity to changes in their habitat means an oil spill could have serious consequences for them, and prevent sea otter recovery in California. But oil spills aren’t the only major threat to sea otters. They also have to deal with a lack of viable food sources, habitat degradation, and poor coastal water quality from onshore runoff (meaning, pollution from humans) which causes disease. On top of all of this, Southern sea otters are facing increased attacks from sharks. It’s believed that the sharks confuse them for their normal prey, such as seals, since sea otters are not part of their normal diet. Scientists are currently trying to understand what is causing this increase in attacks.

Now, you may be thinking that Southern sea otters have the cards stacked against them, and you’d be right if it weren’t for one thing: Californians refuse to let them go extinct! That’s right – Californians love sea otters so much that they’ve been able to crowd fund sea otter recovery efforts. This is not only because sea otters are adorable (obviously!), but also because they provide cultural value to our coastal communities, and support the overall health of the central coast’s nearshore marine ecosystems, especially the kelp forests and sea grass beds.

Sea otter, © Don Henderson

How are Californians able to help? The California income tax form includes the option to voluntarily contribute to a number of very important funds, including the California Sea Otter Fund. Since the fund first appeared on the form in 2007, it has raised over $2 million through voluntary contributions from Californians. 2015 has been a particularly successful year for the fund, raising over $300,000 between January and June alone. The money raised goes to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Coastal Conservancy to fund actions like research into what is threatening sea otter population growth, public outreach and education, and investigations into any harassment or harm to sea otters. Only with more information can we be better prepared to react to incidents like the Refugio spill, and protect Southern sea otters against their impacts.

While the fund provides critical support for sea otter recovery, it isn’t guaranteed to last forever. That’s because every five years the fund must be renewed through the state’s legislative process and signed into law by the governor. Since the fund was set to expire on December 31st, 2015, we knew we’d have to make a good effort to get it renewed.

This year, Senator Bill Monning authored S.B. 17 to renew the California Sea Otter Fund. Defenders of Wildlife and Friends of the Sea Otter sponsored the bill and helped gather wide support from the public and California’s policymakers. Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law on Friday, August 7th, securing ongoing funding for five more years of Southern sea otter recovery. Thank you, Senator Monning and Governor Brown!

If you live in California and would like to know how to contribute to the California Sea Otter Fund, check out our webpage here.

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