Fishermen who have spent decades at sea can't compete with an animal whose entire life is structured around grooming and eating
The red sea urchin looks more like a ball of pins than a delicacy. But hidden behind a hard circular shell and hundreds of possibly poisonous spines are five gonads treasured for their taste by humans and otters alike.
Along the California coast, beach-goers pick up live urchins and attack them with scissors to expose their goopy innards. They then slurp them up with the tongue, uncooked. Connoisseurs, however, focus in on the reproductive organs, which supposedly taste like butter. The females have a gritty creamed wheat texture and the males a more silky one.
The Japanese are the largest consumers of this delicacy otherwise known as uni, and after they depleted their natural sea urchin stock, they turned to U.S. imports. Here, sea urchins are harvested by individual divers operating from small boats. The annual catch reliably totals 10-12 million pounds with a wholesale value of $19.7 million, representing a small but important fraction of the California economy.
In the absence of predators, sea urchin harvesting off of the California coast has proven highly sustainable. The urchins have a glut of food, and the industry is tightly regulated. In place of diverse kelp forests, the seafloor is now a barren, albeit profitable sea urchin wasteland. Without human intervention, that wouldn’t be the case. Sea otters would decimate the fields and kelp would abound. Not only are otters expert at finding urchins, they’re voracious eaters, consuming up to 35 percent of their body weight a day with urchins providing 40 percent of that total.
That sea urchins and sea otters today coexist in California is not a miracle. Instead, it’s the result of government protectionism and the fur trade. Like any industry facing competition from a highly skilled and charismatic opponent—not only are the otters dexterous, tool-wielding and social, they’re also cute—fishermen appealed to the government for protection.
So 24 years ago, a consortium of business, environmental and military interests teamed up to move a population of 140 otters to San Nicholas Island. But the proposal came with an important caveat: Otters were banned from Point Conception to the Mexican border, and the Fish and Wildlife Service was required to trap and remove any trespassers. The otter-exclusion zone was born.
While the final decision won’t come until December, it looks like otters will once again be free to swim south of Point Conception. A lawsuit filed against the Fish and Wildlife service may spell the end of the no-otter zone. But in May, Representative Elton Gallegly introduced the Military Readiness and Southern Sea Otter Conservation Act (H.R 4043). And like any well-named congressional act, the bill was intended to do exactly the opposite of what its title suggests: declaw environmental regulations and prolong the decision-making period on the exclusion zone. The bill failed to gain traction, and was integrated into the National Defense Reauthorization Act (H.R. 4310).
While some of the more stringent language was excised, the bill—according to environmental advocates—still takes the bite out of environmental legislation. The Senate needs to draft its own version of the bill, and then the bills will head to reconciliation, where otter advocates think they stand a good chance of removing language pertaining to fishermen. But as things stand, it isn't looking so great for the otters.