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Showing Otters Love Through Your Taxes

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Photo: Michael L. Baird/Flickr

Photo: Michael L. Baird/Flickr

By Melissae Fellet | KUSP News

More than two million dollars have been contributed to the California Sea Otter Fund through donations on the state income tax form. The fund has become an important source of support for sea otter research and conservation programs in the state. But the program will only continue if donations reach a mandated minimum target this year, which is the largest in its seven-year history.

“Anytime anyone tells me that they donate, I always thank them because it really affects me directly,” says Francesca Batac, a laboratory technician with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The tax check off program provides all of her salary. “The tax payers will be happy to know that most of my life revolves around sea otters. They’re getting what they’re paying for.”

Working in the office of spill prevention and response, Batac’s first priority is helping wildlife during an oil spill. The rest of the time, she helps with otter research, both in the field and in the lab.

Melissa Miller, a wildlife pathologist with DFW, performs animal autopsies, called necropsies, on many dead stranded sea otters found on area beaches. She considers Batac her right hand person during that process.

Batac says getting things ready for a pathologist to do a necropsy can take practically an entire day. That includes preparing to collect tissue samples to send out for tests and sampling labels for the 50 or so samples that are saved in the freezer. Batac also gathers any clinical or field observations from when an animal was alive.

Learning about life from death

“When an animal comes into us for an exam, I see that as an opportunity for that girl to tell us her whole story,” Miller says. During a three to four hour exam, Miller learns how an otter lived by looking at at the type and amount of food it ate. She learns more about female otters by determining how many pups they had during their lives.

Another part of the necropsy, Miller says, is determining the things that limited an otter’s lifespan. Often, she finds clues that otters have encountered pollution coming from land. That includes chemicals and biological contaminants like bacteria, parasites or fungi.

“A lot of times what we’re finding is problems getting into sea otters are really watershed problems,” Miller says. “In order to fix the problem in sea otters, we’ve got to fix the watersheds, and that provides huge benefits all the way up the chain.”

Research funded by the tax check off program is being used to inform policies for watershed management. Miller is grateful that the program continues to exist. She says that the economic downturn during the last five years made it difficult for groups working on sea otters in California to get the funds they needed.

“It was humbling because during that time, I know how tight things were for the tax payers of California,” Miller says. “Just as much as it was bad for state programs, it was bad for everybody. In spite of that, they continued to fund that program.”

Contribution apportionment

Contributions get split into two portions. The California Coastal Conservancy uses some of the money to support research into improving nearshore habitats and reducing sea otter mortality. DFW receives the other portion of the funds.

Traditionally the agency has used those funds for investigating the main causes of otter mortality, says Laird Henckel, an environmental scientist at DFW. But a recent case of shot sea otters provided an opportunity to use the money for enforcement as well.

Last September, three sea otters were shot near Pacific Grove. About 20 percent of the reward for information on suspects involved in the incident is from the tax donations.

The Sea Otter Tax Fund needs to raise more than $277,000 in 2014 to remain on income tax forms for the next year. As of February, they’ve reached 15 percent of that goal.

Keep up with the status of contributions to the Sea Otter Tax Fund on Facebook.

Learn about other research supported by the tax fund program.

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