Making a Difference: The California Sea Otter Fund

Sea otter pup

Sea otter pup – Monterey Bay, CA

The California Sea Otter Fund supports researchers working to understand what’s threatening sea otters so we can find ways to help them recover.  Each year the Fund must meet a target goal in order to stay on the tax form the following year.  You can contribute to the CA Sea Otter Fund when filing your CA income tax return.
About 8 years ago, then California Assemblyman Dave Jones was visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium with his family. On hearing about the health problems faced by sea otters, particularly the brain invading protozoa Toxoplasma, his young son became very upset and asked his dad if there wasn’t something that could be done about it. Mr. Jones went back to Sacramento, and with the assistance of Santa Cruz Assemblyman John Laird (now California Natural Resources Secretary), they developed and got passed a law that, among other things, allowed the State Franchise Tax Board to put a tax donation check off box for the California Sea Otter Fund on tax forms. It also made the investigation of sea otter disease and health problems a priority for the California Department of Fish and Game’s program on the Long Marine Lab campus.

This program, and other efforts funded by the Sea Otter Fund through the California Coastal Conservancy have made major contributions to understanding Southern sea otter health and recovery problems and these are described in detail on Some of those findings are the basis for actions by the California and South Coastal Regional Water Boards and other government agencies and NGOs, aimed at cleaning up our coastal ecosystems. Importantly, most of the things that improve sea otter health also reduce human health risk and improve health and sustainability of near-shore ecosystems

As a basic breakdown, at the end of the year when all contributions are made, 10% of the year’s total is taken by the Franchise Tax Board for administration of the check-off (so $25,000 if the year’s total was $250,000). The remaining 90% (say $225,000 in this example) is divided between 2 programs, one administered by the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), and one administered by the California Coastal Conservancy (in this example each might get $112,500).

CDFG also takes out overhead and uses some of its portion for public outreach efforts. About $75,000 then goes to support sea otter disease and health research conducted through CDFG’s Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center located in Santa Cruz. Without these funds that program would likely have been closed down during these past years of State budget shortfalls.

The CCC administered portion of the tax check off funds (about $112,000 yearly) supports competitive research grants focused on sea otter health and recovery. The Sea Otter Alliance has been successful in proposing projects for funding by the CCC portion of the tax check off.

But, to remain a featured tax check-off box, the Sea Otter Fund must get a minimum level of support each year as this is a measure of its importance to Californians. Initially that amount was $250,000. With each successful year the amount goes up. The target amount for the 2011 tax year was $267,934. But, by the end of May Californians had already donated $288,817, surpassing the yearly minimum by about $20,000. So, clearly, sea otters, their health and recovery under the Endangered Species Act (they are listed as “threatened”) is a high priority for Californians. This is particularly welcome news during a time of economic turmoil. During the earlier years the sea otter tax check-off barely made its minimums several years in a row. It seems like the word has spread and people do indeed care about sea otters.

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About is dedicated to raising awareness about California's threatened sea otters and the role research plays in the species recovery and conservation. It's a collaboration of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, U.C. Santa Cruz, U.C. Davis, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, among others. is also home of the world's first HD live stream of southern sea otters in the wild.