• Alan Peterson

The Art and (Citizen) Science of Otters

Some colorful new residents will be popping up in Northern California soon. One hundred of them, to be exact. Thanks largely to Dr. Jeffrey Black, Professor of wildlife at Humboldt State University, these three-foot-tall otter statues are coming from England to appear in local shops, restaurants, parks, visitor centers and other venues after they have been decorated by local artists. They’re part of a public arts, citizen science and environmental education initiative that will take place during the summer of 2020, but the story of their origin stretches back more than twenty years.

Dr. Black and his wife Gilly also voyaged across the Atlantic, moving from England to Arcata in 1998. Gilly had never encountered a wild otter, despite spending a year attempting to capture one for a study. Hunting and pollution had reduced Eurasian river otters to such a tiny fraction of their original range and population that she failed to even spot one in the wild. Jeff grew up in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and had never seen a wild otter either. “Then, I arrived here” Dr. Black told me on the back porch of his Arcata home. “[We] went down to the Mad River boat ramp to take the dog for a swim. Oh, we saw an otter! We can’t put the dogs in, there’s an otter there. Then we went bird-watching at Arcata Marsh and hey! There’s another otter!” A third sighting during the same week at the Woodley Island marina delighted the couple. It also piqued their curiosity about the otter populations and behavior around their new home.

Humboldt Bay's otters patrol muddy sloughs for fish like this midshipman

At the time, only one person was studying river otters in Humboldt County. Patrick Shannon had been monitoring their activity in marine environments around Trinidad, California since 1983, but no comprehensive data or documentation was available to shed light on the health of otter populations in the rest of the region’s waterways, wetlands and coastlines. Faced with many questions and a dearth of information, Jeff and his colleagues went to work devising a system for local observers to report their wild otter sightings. A year later, the HSU River Otter Citizen Science Project was born.

One of the many fliers asking nature-goers to report their otter sightings

Over the course of twenty years, the HSU wildlife department collected over 6000 reports from its growing army of otter spotters up and down the north coast. “We started seeing a picture, a pattern of sightings” Jeff told me. “Where people were spending their time, we could keep track of the otters at those locations.” Around 40 hot spots of otter sightings have emerged within his study area. “The goal is to keep tabs [on the otters]. Are the number of pups staying the same over time? Are they decreasing? Are they increasing? The last time we checked, with fifteen years of data, it was stable. The number of pups being produced was about the same each year, and about the same on the coast versus inland. That’s good. That’s suggesting we have a stable population.”

This has not been the case in most of California. Fur hunters, habitat loss, pollution and other pressures left large portions of the state otterless for the better part of a century. However, a ban on hunting and increasingly rigorous water quality standards implemented since the 1970’s have paved the way for these busy mustelids to reclaim parts of their old turf. In 2012, San Francisco hosted its first river otter visitor in living memory. Sutro Sam, as the locals dubbed the new resident of the bath house ruins, became an instant celebrity to California’s wildlife watchers, and put a spotlight on the growing number of otter sightings in the Bay Area. Naturalists there began to ask themselves the same questions that Dr. Black did. Luckily, some of them were aware of his research, and enlisted Humboldt State University’s help in assembling their own citizen science program. Similar otter record collection efforts have since been assembled in the Sacramento area, and Washington, with wildlife reporting apps like iNaturalist picking up some of the slack outside of formal study areas.

California isn’t the only place where otter populations are experiencing a comeback; thanks to a hunting ban and water quality improvements, Britain’s otters are rebounding as well. Jeff and Gilly discovered this when they returned to England to visit Gilly’s family in 2017. During a trip to Dartmoor National Park, one of their favorite wilderness areas in the region, they stopped for a cup of tea at a pub. They soon noticed an otter statue in the corner, painted with a wetland plant motif. “It was just beautiful” Jeff told me. Other customers were approaching the otter to take selfies with it, so Jeff and Gilly did the same. A guide book on the otter’s plinth welcomed them to the Moor Otter Trail, and goaded them to find all one hundred uniquely-painted otters. “It challenged you to go find twenty and win a prize… like cream tea for four or something. So we did.” During their week’s stay, the two otter aficionados went to pubs, galleries, restaurants and visitor centers, managing to find thirty statues. “I was convinced right there and then that we need to do the same in Humboldt County - and Del Norte, and Trinity, and Siskiyou, and Mendocino.”

Arcata Marsh's waterfowl are on the menu for otters

Thus, North Coast Otters was born. For the past several months, Dr. Black has been speaking at community events to lay out his plans for the otter statues and other programs that will accompany them. His aim is to educate the public about otters and their habitat, to increase engagement with the citizen science project, and to attract tourists (a nice bonus for our economically isolated corner of the state). Other professors and students at HSU will be pitching in: Jim Woglum (Art) will be helping with the statues and Jenn Tarlton (Environmental Interpretation) will be launching a children’s program to train a new generation of otter spotters. The Computer Science department has an app in the works.

The statues will remain in place for the summer otter festivities of 2020, but that is not the end of their journey. Once September rolls around, they will head to the auction block with proceeds benefiting the artists who decorated them. If all goes according to plan, Northern California will have a host of new otter spotters providing data. Art enthusiasts will have something to enjoy and the citizenry will be a bit more knowledgeable about aquatic and marine ecosystems. Perhaps one or more of our otter statues will end up in the hands of naturalists who want to bring citizen science and art initiatives to their own communities, like one of the Dartmoor otters did with Dr. Black.

I’ve been one of Jeff’s otter spotters for the last few years, and I’ll be covering North Coast Otters as it develops. Stay tuned for more on the art and citizen science initiatives as well as news of our local otters.

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