Celebrating a week dedicated to the very adorable, certainly mischievous, and most importantly keystone species, the sea otter, is something otter lovers like me look forward to every year. It is an important week dedicated to not only being aware of sea otters (I mean really how can you not?!) but acknowledging the threats they are facing in the ocean, and inspiring people to not only care about sea otters but help protect and conserve them too.
While I believe sea otter awareness is 24/7, 365 days a year, September 18th through September 24th this year has been dedicated as a time to appreciate and be aware of these charming marine mammals. Each year zoos, aquariums, natural history museums, marine institutions, filmmakers, researchers, academics, educators, and the general public take the time to recognize the vital role that sea otters play in nearshore ecosystems along the west coast.
This year’s sea otter awareness week marks its 14th year and started off with a celebration. Researchers announced that the latest count of southern sea otters along the coast of California was the highest recorded since 1983. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released that the population is estimated at 3,272 individuals. This is the first time in the last 30 years that the estimate has been above 3,090 individuals which is a huge feat for the species and conservation.
Sea Otter 101
Sea otters are mammals and are a part of the family Mustelida. They are the only marine or ocean dwelling member of the family that includes weasels, skunks, and river otters. They are a marine carnivore that lives along the coasts in the Pacific Ocean both in North America and Asia. Sea otters are split into three sub species: the Russian or Asian sea otter, the northern or Alaskan sea otter, and the southern or Californian sea otter.
They spend the majority of their time in the kelp forests of the ocean and are certainly built for it. They have webbed feet, nostrils and ears that close in the water, and most importantly they have thick water resistant fur to keep them dry and warm. They have the thickest fur of any animal with more than one million hairs per square inch. Sea otters are meticulous groomers, cleaning their coat, paws and even teeth. By maintaining coat condition, they stay insulated and waterproof in the cold water they swim in since they have no insulating fat.
Sea otters are the largest species of otter. They can get up to 4 feet in length and up to 50 pounds for females and up to 70 pounds for males. Like I mentioned they are carnivores that eat a variety diet that includes crabs, snails, urchins, clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, and other invertebrates. Otters are known for quick metabolisms and can eat about a quarter of its weight in food a day.
Sea Otter Threats
While once plentiful in the North Pacific (populations estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of individuals) many threats have caused a great decline in the overall sea otter population. Historically, sea otters were coveted for their luxurious, thick, warm fur. Thus they were hunted heavily by fur traders and their stock was depleted greatly. Because of this they were nearly completely wiped out in the early 1900s. Southern sea otters were also targeted for their dense fur. Ranging from Oregon to Baja, Mexico, they were actually believed to be extinct in California after the fur trade boom. Luckily, a very small population was discovered after some time and they became protected shortly after that.
Today, sea otters still face threats from humans even though they are now protected by the government. These threats may not be in the direct form of hunting (although this still happens illegally) but instead through pollution. Plastics and garbage that end up in the ocean are consumed by all sorts of marine life including sea otters. This is obviously not good for them and in some cases can have fatal implications.
Oil spills are also a big problem for sea otters. They have special fur that is designed to keep them warm and dry. When oil gets on their fur it can cause a counter affect and leave the animal freezing. Sea otters like dogs and cats also groom themselves and this is a very important natural behavior. If a sea otter that has swam through an oil spill tries to groom themselves, they will ingest the crude oil which is toxic. Depending on the amount and the size of the otter this too can have fatal effects for the animal.
Warming ocean temperatures and changing environments are also a major problem for sea otters. Like I mentioned they are a keystone species and thus an indicator of the overall health of the marine ecosystems they call home. Changing environments can be fatal for sea otters if they cannot adjust quickly enough over time.
In addition to human causes, they still face natural predators, disease, and completion for resources.
Sea Otter Protection
Sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. This includes all marine mammals within U.S. waters. This act makes it illegal to collect any marine mammals without a permit. It also makes it COMPLETELY illegal to harass, feed, hunt, capture, collect, or kill any marine mammal.
Being an endangered species they are also protected under The Endangered Species Act of 1973 which provides conservation for endangered or threatened species.
While the numbers are improving and do offer quite a bit of hope for the future, there are still many more obstacles for the species to overcome. While numbers are increasing and awareness appears to be going up too, southern sea otters still seem to be struggling to expand to their historical range. While this is nowhere near a full recovery for the sea otter, it is definitely one step closer to regaining the once abundant population.
References and photos courtesy of: