Otter-ly Adorable Climate Change Warriors May Save California’s Coastal Ecosystems

This piece was originally published in a magazine.

The underwater forest of giant kelp is 100 feet tall at the rate of a foot a day and lies off the coast of California. All that rapidly growing seaweed soaks up carbon from the water, playing an incredibly important role in climate mitigation. Chris Wilmers, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says that with kelp it goes a huge amount of carbon. kelp forests are more productive than other forests in that they are more carbon efficient.

The sea otter massacred in the 18th century has caused purple urchins to decimate California's kelp forest. Sea otter hairs are densely packed and don't rely on a lot of blubber for insulation. They have a million of them per square inch. The otter numbers in California went from 20,000 to 50 in the last few centuries.

The native population of urchins balloons without the otter patrolling them. The spiky invertebrates change their strategy from hiding in rock crevices to venturing out and chowing down. Jess Fujii, the sea otter program manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, says that once the otter are not present, the urchins can overrun the area. You will not see anything else except rocks and hard substrate covered in urchins. In the last few years, parts of the West Coast have seen a 10,000 percent increase in the number of urchins.

There is a giant forest along the coast. Douglas Klug is a photographer.

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The aquarium has been trying to bring back the otter since 2002. Sea otter moms in captivity take in orphans because great white sharks don't eat them. The pups are taught how to clean themselves, float on their backs, and use rocks to crack open sea urchins. They are learning how to be an otter from an otter, and not hand-feeding them. Some of the animals come in when they are a day old. They don't know what home used to be.

When the adoptees are ready, Fujii's team sets them loose in the coastal habitats of California. Each is tagged and monitored for the first two weeks to make sure they are getting along. Along with observational surveys in Monterey Bay, tagging helps scientists conduct censuses of the otter population. They are brought back in if not, then back to otter school. The team found that the 37 adopted otter that were released between 2002 and 2016 have survived just as well as if they had grown up in the wild. The reintroduced otter makes more otter. The sea otter population along the California coast has grown thanks to this program.

A sea otter is a great engineer. They eat 25% of their body weight a day to stay warm and healthy. Fujii says that having to eat as much as they do in order to survive in their environment has a positive impact on habitats. Another program has tried to bring back a different type of scuba diver.

Sea urchins are attacking a giant kelp holdfast. Brent Durand

Keeping the population of urchins in check is important for the ecology. The forest is a habitat for fish, which are the food source for birds and other marine mammals. Scientists call the seaweed part of a blue carbon system, which is a coastal or marine area that sequesters carbon. Wetlands and mangroves are included in other areas.

It is difficult to quantify how much carbon a forest takes up. A tree that grows to be massive over hundreds of years can lock away a lot of carbon. If it catches on fire, the carbon goes back into the atmosphere. Things are in motion underwater. Sea urchins are pooping out the carbon while nibbling on the seaweed. The sea breaks off bits of the forest, which fall to the seafloor and release carbon. A kelp forest sequesters and releases carbon all the time.

It is difficult to know how long the carbon stays trapped. The fate of all the kelp is not well understood. Imagine that all the stuff that is going to be lost is going to be lost in the deep ocean for a long time. That is a much more significant carbon sequestration benefit than simply decomposing and going back into the atmosphere.

A sea otter is diving in the forest. Francois Gohier/VW pics/Universal Images Group.

There are otter populations farther north on the Pacific coast, between the Canadian border and the tip of the Aleutian Islands. It would be equivalent to canceling the emissions of 5 million cars if a kelp forest grew well and half the carbon it absorbs is sequestered in the deep sea. 100,000 cars emit the same amount of carbon as if just 1 percent of the carbon stays in the depths.

The otter protects the kelp in Monterey Bay. The otter affect the growth of the plant in a more indirect way, but they also venture up the large tidal marsh where they encourage the growth of the plant. The otter eats crabs, which in turn eat sea slugs, which eat the algae that grows on the eelgrass. Reducing the number of crabs that are eaten by the slugs helps the plants absorb more sunlight by keeping the plants clean. The amount of eelgrass in the area has increased 600 percent in the last three decades thanks to the return of the otter.

A mangrove or a tidal marsh traps a lot of carbon. Emily Pidgeon, vice president of ocean science and innovation at the nonprofit, says that they are removing carbon dioxide at rates that are up to 10 times as fast as they are in the land. It gets locked away for thousands of years because it is buried in the soil below them. You end up with rich stores of carbon in these ecosystems that are much denser than in forests.

The tidal marsh of Elkhorn Slough is being helped by otters. The Edmund Lowe Photography is part of the.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's vice president of ocean policy strategy says that restoring the marshland is crucial to the ecology. buffering from storms is one of the services that they provide for us. The otter has played a great role in the Elkhorn Slough estuary, which is notorious for being at the epicenter of a lot of different industrial uses, including agriculture.

Community members can make money from sustainable fisheries. The sea otter in Monterey is very cute and brings in tourists and their money. These kinds of benefits are why people are campaigning for nature-based solutions to fight climate change. Everyone wins, the locals, the climate, and the environment. Maybe not the sea urchins and crabs. They will be missed.