The Ocean's Buddy.

Help the Saltwater Sea Weasels While Doing Your California State Taxes

Did you know sea otters are “the heaviest members of the weasel family“? Well now you know. Luckily, they are called otters instead of weasels, avoiding the unfortunate English-language connotations of the word “weasel” as a description of venal and cowardly human behavior.

Sea otters have made a remarkable recovery over the past 20 years. In the early 1990s, there were only about a thousand left worldwide. And this recovery did not come about accidentally—it took a tremendous amount of ongoing work, ongoing legislation and enforcement, and the costly coordinated global end of the otter-fur business. One of the easiest ways to directly support the recovery of the otters is one little checkbox on your California state income tax return.

How many otters are there today? Defenders of Wildlife says just under 106,000, which is actually incredible. In the late 1990s, I took a long road trip up the coast from Los Angeles to Seattle, with many specific lingering detours looking for sea otters. Never saw a single one. Which makes sense, because they were mostly gone, whoosh, no more sea otters.

A big part of the funding for this work on restoring kelp forests and controlling toxic runoff into the bays and harbors is the California Sea Otter Fund. I’ve been adding a couple of bucks to this for as long as it’s been appearing in the voluntary contributions section of Form 540, and honestly I never thought it was accomplishing that much. I mean, it made me feel better for 10 minutes, until something on the Internet annoyed me again, but I wasn’t envisioning actual wild sea otters being born into a much better situation because I did the equivalent of dropping some change in a tip jar.

The fund has raised more than two million dollars for the otters. $2,000,000. If you know anything about how terribly marine biologists and conservation experts are paid, you know that’s a lot of money for a single project. But here’s the catch: The fund has to earn more than $270,000 annually to get renewed by California’s tax department. It just barely made it last year.

In a few trips to Monterey Bay this year and last year, I’ve seen dozens of wild sea otters. They’re diving around piers full of tourist restaurants, they’re paddling by kayakers, in some spots they’re as common as harbor seals and sea lions. I mean, I remember very well when there were no sea otters, no matter how many secret spots on the coast I visited. It’s one of those tremendously powerful reminders that we can actually do something, that there’s an way forward beyond dystopia and mass extinctions.

And don’t forget the Rare and Endangered Species Preservation Program—it’s on line 403 of the form, close to the otter fund on line 410. This is strictly a donation; it doesn’t lower your tax bill or anything, but it’s an easy way to put money directly into the sea otter recovery.

Photo courtesy of Friends of the Sea Otter.

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