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Saving Sea Otters, One Check Mark at a Time

sea_otterCalifornia’s cutest marine mammals get a legislative boost
Sea otter lovers, rejoice—the threatened ocean critters have hope on the horizon in form of Assembly Bill 971 (AB 971). Santa Cruz’s State Assemblymember Bill Monning (D-17th District) authored the bill, which was introduced in March and approved by the Assembly earlier this week in a 72-3 vote.

The bill will keep an existing voluntary contribution check box on the California tax form for another five years, directing what’s garnered to the California Sea Otter Fund. The collected funds are divvied up to organizations and researchers working to protect and replenish sea otter populations. The Fund is the single largest contributor to sea otter research in California.

“Californians have shown their support for sea otter research and preservation by selecting a voluntary contribution on their state tax returns year after year,” Monning tells Good Times. “The passage of this bill will allow for this choice to continue as an option.”

Less than 3,000 sea otters live off of California’s coast today—only one-fifth of the historic population. Why they’re disappearing and how to solve it remain challenging problems for Golden State scientists and conservationists.

For Monning, sea otter decline is worrisome for several reasons. “This bill is important to me because the sea otter is the proverbial ‘canary in the [coal] mine’ for our ocean habitat,” he says. “A healthy otter population is critical to the health of all marine mammals and the health of our vital tourism industry. I am pleased with the bipartisan support we have mobilized."

Rachel Goodman, Monning’s district director, expounds on these issues, noting that “sea otters are a key species in the Monterey Bay ocean ecosystem, keeping the sea urchin population in balance so we can have healthy kelp forests.”

In order to stay on the tax collections form, the Sea Otter Fund must raise a minimum amount (around $250,000) each year. The minimum for 2011 is $260,890. According to Goodman, the collection numbers are on track to meet the threshold. “Enough people seem to realize that sea otters are in trouble and funds [are needed] to study why they are not recovering well,” she says.

The bill, which was co-sponsored by Defenders of Wildlife and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, now moves on to the Senate, where the Senate Policy Committee will consider it before July 8 and the entire Senate will vote on it between then and September.

Learn more about the California Sea Otter Fund.

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