Even in the vast and mysterious reaches of the sea we are brought back to the fundamental truth that nothing lives to itself.
— Rachel Carson
“I’ve never lived on the West Coast, but I really have absolutely fallen in love with the place.”
Dominique Kone and I are talking at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, covering a lot of ground in the 28-year-old’s narrative, from early years in small towns like Blue Hill and Bucksport, Maine, and then his undergraduate days in the big town (50,000) of Waterville where Kone entered Colby College on a track and field scholarship.
The beauty of going deep on these stories is that readers learn how the NCAA Division III’s fastest athlete in the 100- and 60-meter dashes finds himself in Washington DC working for the PEW Charitable Trust and goes on to set down roots in Corvallis with much time spent completing a master’s in science at the Oregon Coast.
We first meet at an American Cetacean Society gathering where Kone is giving a large audience a thorough and enlightening rundown on his work as a community ecologist studying the possibility of the sea otter finding a home back on Oregon Coast’s waters.
These iconic tool-using mammals, sometimes reaching five feet in length and hitting 100 pounds, have not been a presence on our coastline for decades. Many residents and naturalists might see another member of the weasel family scurrying around the tidewaters and creeks, but those mammals are officially river otters.
Dominque (Dom) Kone’s work is tied to interdisciplinary approaches studying a species like the sea otter (Enhydra lutris).
The Power Point’s title is a typically erudite one associated with grad work: “An Ecological Assessment of a Potential Sea Otter Reintegration to Oregon” under the auspices of the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab.
Communicating Science His Gift
The powerful element to Kone’s presentation is his at-ease presence and articulateness with a crowd that considers itself amateur biologists.
In the parlance of OSU and other institutions, “transdisciplinary” and “interdisciplinary” define what Dom and his two project fellows are doing to make science much more vigorous and relevant across many disciplines.
This sea otter project is part of a grant OSU received from the National Science Foundation, spurring multiple disciplines in higher education to study the risk and uncertainty in marine science. Dom is one fellowship recipient in his team of three – the others are a social scientist and geneticist.
While the reader will get some of the history surrounding sea otters on the Oregon Coast — from Warrenton to Brookings — and then their localized extirpation and subsequent reintroduction and disappearance, two vital questions in the fellows’ research have been posed and require answering:
1. Does Oregon have suitable habitat for reintroducing the sea otter given the overlapping human activities that have developed over time?
2. What are the potential ecological effects of sea otter reintroduction?
Dom makes it clear that those questions are much more complicated and overlaid with other factors related to potential resource competition, such as interactions with human-based fisheries, which target the same food sources otters do. Add to the mix a marine mammal with the sea otter’s history in California, Washington, Canada and Alaska both positively and negatively affecting the ecosystem separate from Homo sapiens’ needs.
Systems Thinking, Holistic Practices
“My adviser is a professor in the fisheries and wildlife department, but I study within the marine resource management program.” That means Dom has a thesis/project adviser and committee members that include two OSU faculty — a marine ecologist and public policy expert — in addition to an Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (ODFW) shellfish manager and a sea otter ecologist from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The reason inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches are a hot topic, Dom says, is “because a lot of issues facing resource managers involving the environment are really complex to address requiring multiple disciplines to find solutions to all the challenges they face.”
For Dom, who went from four years in the highly diverse and energized DC, to our laid back Corvallis and Coast, he says he has been surprised how gratifying it’s been to be in a place where he can listen to the interests and needs of so many people directly affected by environmental policies and ecological and climatic changes.
He went from a kid who had no robust science classes or ecology clubs in high school in Maine, to this spark plug of a graduate student working on cutting-edge research. Both places, Maine and Oregon, have that one identity issue in common: He was one of three black students in his high school (one was his sister), and he is often the only black student in an OSU classroom.
He touts the added-value of the interdisciplinary project: “I gained skills I wasn’t expecting, like being a good teammate, collaboration and accountability. And I’ve benefited from interacting with people from different disciplines. I’ve increased my communication skills and learned valuable conflict resolution tactics.”
A perfect toolbox for anyone working on endangered species and environmental policies while attempting to integrate the public’s and business stakeholders’ perceptions, needs and demands.
Note: First published at Deep Dive
In otter news
We talk about conservation biology, ecology, environmental issues and what needs to be done to address many coalescing problems we face on the Central Oregon Coast, in the state and around world in general.
“It’s really important to look at connections and feedbacks,” Dom says as we cover myriad topics. “We need to understand the ecological processes. And scientists can play an important role in listening to stakeholders and their values and concerns. As a scientist and educator, I see my role as educating people on how complex these impacts and variables are in our ecosystem.”
Continually, we talk about the idea that for too long, humans have not considered themselves as part of the natural world. That dominating role has created untold damage to ecosystems that are at the same time both resilient and fragile.
I liken it to arrogance and myopia.
Whether it’s DDT used to kill insects or bringing the American beaver close to extinction, the unintended consequences are apparent to ecologists like Dominique: The American bald eagle almost went extinct due to the DDT causing eggshells to thin and the unhatched chicks to die under the crushing weight of their parents. The eagle’s recovery – largely by banning DDT – is a success story.
For the beaver, much of the East Coast waterways and standing ponds and lakes (wetlands and storm buffers) were created by the beaver, that once numbered 200 million in North America. The fur trade brought them close to absolute extinction. About five percent of the total number of beavers before the fur trade now live in North America (10 million).
Moreover, the fur trade almost brought sea otters to the brink of extinction, Dom states. There were around 150,000 to 300,000 sea otters before heavy hunting, dating from 1741 to 1911, brought the world population to 1,000 to 2,000 individuals living in a fraction of their historic range.
There’s an international ban on hunting them, and from what Dom has studied, we have more than 50 years of managing them through conservation efforts. Dom tells the naturalists with the American Cetacean Society that reintroduction programs into previously populated areas have aided some of the rebounding.
These translocation efforts, from 1965 to ’72, shuttled sea otters form the Central Coast of Alaska to other parts of that state and then British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.
These creatures are enigmatic and iconic. We surmise that the last native sea otter in Oregon was shot and killed in 1906. Those 95 sea otters transplanted from Amchitka Island, Alaska, to the Southern Oregon Coast were our best chance at recovery. Sightings make the scientific journals — in 2004, a male sea otter hung out for six months at Simpson Reef off of Cape Arago. Then, in 2009, another male sea otter was spotted in Depoe Bay. Both otters could have traveled to from either California or Washington
“Within five or six years, the otters mysteriously disappeared,” Dominique states.
He nuances the Alaska population’s vitality by pointing out that maybe three of the stocks are doing well, while the Southwestern Alaskan stock is threatened. Ironically, in 1970, another OSU graduate student, Ron Jameson, monitored the 95 otters while they were here, with sightings along the 276 miles of Oregon coast.
“Very few sea otter carcasses were found on the Oregon coast,” Dom said. “Mortality can’t explain their disappearance.”
Otters Doing What Otters Must Do – Explore!
Other explanations for their exit from our coast could be “otters were doing what otters do – disperse and explore other locations.” The mystery spurs scientists to find answers: Lack of food? Lack of habitat? Human disturbances?
Dom is deft at fielding questions from the crowd of 35, and he explains how conservation biologists consider sea otter recovery an important link in marine conservation. The interrelationship of one species with the total ecological health of other species was first named in 1969 by Robert Paine who looked at the sea otter and other fauna as “keystone species.”
The Central Oregon Coast should think of kelp forests as one key benefit of sea otters making a comeback: These are nurseries for many different aquatic species. Kelp forests give protection to juvenile aquatic animals, who would otherwise be vulnerable targets.
Here’s the interconnectivity of otters and kelp forests: Sea urchins multiply, forming barrens that sweep the ocean floor consuming entire stands of kelp.
The keystone element to this species Dominique and his cohorts are studying is that since the sea urchin is a main food source for the sea otter, the mammal acts as “protector of the kelp beds.”
We call this “balancing the ecosystem,” so by keeping urchin populations down, the kelp thrives, and the result is other aquatic species are able to mature and live in their natural environment, and sea otters, a threatened species, are able to survive.
The California and Aleutian Island sea otter populations have either declined or plateaued, and therefore the sea otter remains classified as a threatened species.
This otter research project is really a look at how viable a recovery or restoration project is for Oregon — considering all the implications of so-called human resource management.
The graduate student is looking into the entire suite of unanticipated outcomes or impacts a sea otter reintroduction program might have on the following individual and intersecting issues: law and policy; ecology; fisheries management; politics, economics; social and cultural stakes; genetics; even oceanographic.
Interestingly, while Dom is working as a scientist pulling together the history, biology, fisheries management and public policy sides to Oregon’s possible sea otter reintroduction, he is quick to point out powerful indigenous groups’ spiritual-centered connection to the sea otter, such as the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians and the Coquille Indian Tribe. “We also are looking at what restoring the cultural connections to the sea otter before tribes were forced from coastal lands will do for those communities.”
This once prevalent species comes with it more than its tool-making and cute coastal presence. We have stakeholders with the urchin, Dungeness crab, mussel and clam fisheries. We have all these other human activities, too, along the coast that might make the recovery effort difficult: pollution, shipping lanes, recreation and toxins.
The linchpin for much of my life interviewing people is what makes them tick and from where they came: family, significant emotional events, perspectives honed by trials and tribulations.
Diversity Sets the Standard
Dom’s parents met at Husson University in Bangor, both on basketball scholarships – she having been a white woman with many generations tied to Maine, and his father an African from the Ivory Coast.
Dom says he identifies strongly as a black man, not as bi-racial. While he got interested in science watching religiously PBS’s Nature, he did have opportunities in our country’s national parks through an outing club.
He was the only black child and teen in many situations. When he went to Colby College as a star sprinter and long jumper, he still did not experience much diversity there. It was when he got to DC, as an intern for the National Wildlife Federation and then later as a policy researcher at PEW, that he got a taste of real diversity.
“Sometimes as the only person of color in a room, I have to be aware I am not just representing myself, but my race, yet I don’t want to represent a group since that group is very diverse, too.”
Dom is aware that he can be put into situations of borderline tokenism, and that he has to understand that for younger people, seeing someone like him excel in the sciences gives younger people of color not only a role model but proof that there are inroads being made to accept a more diverse student body, faculty and scientific community.
“Diversity and inclusivity are almost buzz words these days,” he said. “Getting into a program like this one doesn’t solve all the problems. Half the battle is won, part of the systemic hurdle to overcome, but they have to make people of color feel valued and heard, so they will want to stay.”
Dom defends his thesis in December and says he wants to step back from academia for a while, hoping to work in a science policy arena, for a non-profit or governmental agency. He likens his work experience and academic background as a good foundation to be a “boundary spanner” – that is, someone working on scientific research but also developing public policy and drawing on his communications skills to be a workshop facilitator.
“I’ve always wanted to get into endangered species,” he said. “It is amazing, though, how much work goes into any one species, let alone the ecology as a whole where that species interacts with other species.”
One thing we can gather from Dom – he is highly motivated to understand “intersectionalities” in the environmental world. The sea otter seems like a talisman for him to move forward.
Much like the rain forests of the Amazon, Kelp forests are considered by scientists to be one of the more effective sequesters of carbon dioxide. The linkage between sea otters, sea urchins, kelp forests and ultimately climate change mitigation are coming to the fore.
“A recent study shows kelp forests with higher sea otters present can absorb up to 12 times more CO2 from the atmosphere than if they were just left to the urchin explains the linkage between sea otters, sea urchins, kelp forests, and ultimately climate change mitigation,” according to the organization Friends of the Sea Otter.
Count Dominique, 28, as one of those sea otter’s friends.