Monterey Bay

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Sea Otters May Lose Taxpayer Buoy

This is the second in a series of posts on recent developments at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and its sister research institute.

A snoozing sea otter at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

A snoozing sea otter at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

An important source of funding for California Sea Otter research may be in jeopardy.

Since 2007, the California Sea Otter Fund has been one of several options for which state taxpayers could earmark money on their returns. That option may disappear. In order to maintain its slot on state tax forms, annual contributions need to attain a threshold set by the Franchise Tax Board. Lately, those donations have fallen about 25% short of the mark, currently set at more than $258,000. “It’s got to be the economy,” said Jim Curland, when I asked him if he could account for the lag. Curland works on marine programs for the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that works closely with scientists investigating recent declines in the number of sea otters along the California coast. The otter fund competes with about a dozen other programs seeking donations on state tax forms.

Two California sea otters doze in the yacht basin at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

Water mummies: Two California sea otters doze in regal repose in the yacht basin at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

The Monterey Bay Aquarium spends about a million dollars per year on sea otter research, according to spokesman Ken Peterson, who notes that female otters in particular, have been in decline. Scientists are trying to fund tagging and tracking programs to better understand changes in sea otter populations. “Any money out there that helps get answers is critical to their survival,” he told me. The California sea otter is listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act and has “fully protected” status under the California Fish & Game Code.

Curland says proceeds from the tax form donations are split between the state’s Department of Fish & Game and the Coastal Conservancy, which has helped fund a key study off of Big Sur.

If you’re looking for the climate connection here, don’t strain for it. I’ll confess to just being a sucker for the cause. But there may be one. Wildlife biologists at the US Geological Survey (USGS) and UC Santa Cruz, have postulated that as custodians of giant kelp forests, the otters may help optimize carbon sequestration.

Curland says the next three months will be crucial for the fund, as donations trickle in from late filers.

Research Vessel Docked for Lack of Funds

The research vessel Point Lobos, docked at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

The research vessel Point Lobos, docked at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

Update: Since this original post, the status of the Point Lobos was updated by Paul Rogers in the San Jose Mercury News. The article also adds detail on the finances of MBARI and its primary funder.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) has been forced to dock the workhorse of its research fleet, the R/V Point Lobos.

For years the vessel has ventured out three-to-five times a week, to conduct short-term experiments in the deep canyons of Monterey Bay. The ship serves as a platform for the Institute’s remote-control submarine, ROV Ventana. The Point Lobos and its robo-sub have played critical roles in recent experiments to study the effects of ocean acidification, among other endeavors.

In the late 1980s, MBARI converted the 110-foot vessel from its original duty as an oilfield service boat in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then it’s completed more than 3,500 missions, with its seven-person crew and various teams of scientists.

The remotely operated sub Ventana, perched on the afterdeck of the Point Lobos. Photo: Craig Miller

The remotely operated sub Ventana, perched on the afterdeck of the Point Lobos. Photo: Craig Miller

Institute spokesman Kim Fulton-Bennett says that as of April 1, the Lobos is “mothballed” for the time being, its future uncertain. “It means we won’t have as frequent access to the ocean as we did,” Fulton-Bennett told me, as we stood on the dock at Moss Landing.

“By going out several times a week, we’ve got a database of observations that goes back 20 years.”

But the Wall Street woes of the past couple of years have taken their toll on the investment portfolios of many foundations, including MBARI’s primary funder, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which Fulton-Bennett says has reduced it’s funding for MBARI.

H-P co-founder David Packard launched MBARI in 1987 with the goal of applying advanced technology to marine research. The Institute relies on the Packard Foundation for 80% of its funding, typically $30-to-40 million per year, according to the MBARI annual report.

The Institute has two other vessels in its research fleet, a converted pilot boat called the Zephyr and the 117-foot Western Flyer, a twin-hulled, ultra-stable vessel that resembles a catamaran-style ferry. The Flyer is deployed on longer-duration missions in open sea, usually with project-specific funding.

The Point Lobos is featured in Lauren Sommer’s radio report/audio slide show for KQED’s Quest series.