Sea Otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

I took my students for a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey.  (Thank you Monterey Bay Aquarium for supporting the education of the next generation of environmental lawyers!)  The Aquarium has amazing exhibits, remarkably well-curated, educational for visitors, and just an overall great effort in engaging the public ages 1 to 99 on marine and other environmental issues.

In past visits with students to the Aquarium, we used the occasion to read and learn about marine fisheries management issues, such as a tuna and shark conservation (which can be seen in the Aquarium’s giant tank simulating the open ocean).  This year, we decided to focus on the Southern Sea Otter, a cute and cuddly mammal of the weasel family that will make any person without a heart of stone go “oooh” and “awww.”


Apart from making a great exhibit and drawing people into marine mammal protection issues, sea otters are also listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Several centuries, prior to the advent of Europeans on the West Coast, several hundred thousand of them could be found there.  Now, they number only in the low thousands.  Over-hunting drastically reduced their numbers, the same trend that affected the numbers of other marine mammals such as seals and whales. The problem was the prototypical Tragedy of the Commons issue – unsustainable levels of seal and whale hunting arising out of the fur trade because they were found in the environmental commons and thus not subject to protections against over-exploitation.  Because the stocks of seals and whales were rapidly depleted as a result, the major countries involved in these industries concluded the 1911 Fur Seal Treaty, which regulated the hunting of seals in the North Pacific (and included protections for sea otters) as well as the 1931 Geneva Convention on Regulation of Whaling.  (The 1931 Convention was a precursor to the 1946 International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling, which continues to govern whaling today.)  Even though hunting of whales, seals, and sea otters is generally prohibited nowadays, habitat loss and other environmental influences mean that sea otters will never again be seen in the numbers of several centuries ago.

One marine mammal species that is also protected under the MMPA is the polar bear.  Polar bears will be particularly affected by habitat loss attributable to global climate change.   Since they have evolutionarily adapted to hunting seals on the polar sea ice , the disappearance of sea ice due during the summer months will mean that they will not be able to hunt for food that way and result in their inevitable extinction as a species.  Thus goes one more sad consequence of global warming.


The day was beautiful though.  There is one further field trip in store for my students. On Saturday, October 5, we are off to visit the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s Wastewater Treatment Plant near Emeryville.  If the Aquarium was the quintessential “green” side of environmental law, the wastewater treatment plant will be the proverbial “brown” side .  Hopefully, the smells will not traumatize my students too much.

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