Sea otters are one of California’s most loved and adorable marine mammals, their presence is greatly missed and great efforts are being put into action to help preserve and restore the once thriving sea otter populations along our coast.
A Brief History of Sea Otters in southern California
Sea otters were once wide spread along the entire coastal north Pacific, from Japan to Alaska, and all the way down the west coast of North America to Baja Mexico. In California alone, sea otter populations were believed to be around six-teen thousand individuals. Then in the 17th and 18th centuries Russian and Spanish fur traders began exploiting sea otters for their pelts, and hunted them to the brink of extinction.
By the beginning of the 20th century it was assumed that sea otters were extinct, until in 1938 a small group of sea otters were found still thriving in the hidden crevices of Big Sur, California. It was estimated that there were 50 individuals surviving in this area.
California began one of its greatest conservation efforts to protect and allow this small population to repopulate the California coast. Today the population of sea otters descended from this small group found eighty years ago has risen to just under 3,000 individuals!
Why are sea otters so important to California’s marine ecosystems?
Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning they have a larger role in maintaining the health of their ecosystems than other species. Sea otters love to eat benthic (mud dwelling) marine invertebrates, their diet ranges from abalone to sea urchins, crabs, marine snails, worms, sea stars, sand dollars, octopus, squid and others. However, most individuals specialize in one area of the over all sea otter diet.
The most abundant habitat for many marine animals are the kelp forests that line California’s coast, and provide an abundant resource for much of California’s local marine life. In recent years we have seen a sharp decline in kelp forests, this has been occurring for several reasons, such as rising ocean temperatures, but it is also occurring because of the absence of the sea otters. Sea otters keep the sea urchin numbers in balance; otherwise sea urchins eat the base of the kelp plant and eradicate entire forests.
Sea otters can eat a lot of sea urchins! One interesting fact about this lovable, not to mention smallest (and therefore cutest!) member of the marine mammal family, is that they have extremely fast metabolisms because this allows them to release the amount of heat they need to stay warm in the frigid North Pacific waters. An average sea otter will eat 25% of its own body weight per day!
Sea otters are integral members of California’s marine ecosystems, without them entire habitats are lost and contribute to the decrease in bio diversity.
What are the primary threats to sea otters?
Although sea otters have made a huge comeback in the last hundred years, their road to complete recovery is far from over. There are still many threats to sea otters; among the greatest are threats from chemical pollution, food limitation, loss of habitat, and nutritional deficiencies.
California has made some huge mistakes regarding their treatment of sea otters. Although sea otters were listed as endangered in 1977, just nine years later sea otters were officially banned from the southern California coast at the behest of the fishing industries, which saw sea otters as a threat to their commercial exploits. This allowed sea otters in southern California to be unprotected from harassment and harm.
During this time, any sea otters found were trapped and relocated to San Nicholas island, where it was claimed they would ‘be free from the threats of oil spills’; however, this effort was a disaster as many individual sea otters were either harmed or died trying to find their way home.
Beginning in 2001 the Fish and Wildlife Service declared that they would no longer trap and relocate sea otters, allowing them to return to southern California and repopulate.
Regardless of the recent changes in attitude and concern for reintroducing sea otters, their numbers have not grown much since 2006, in fact in 2010 the US Geological Survey announced that numbers had declined for the second year in a row. However, the Californian people showed greater enthusiasm and expressed greater interest in helping this incredibly valuable species recover.
In 2011, Californian Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation re-establishing the main source of funding for sea otter conservation programs, such as the California Sea Otter Fund, and has raised more than $1.5 million dollars in the last five years (well over their goal!).
How Can Sea Otters Be Re Introduced?
Although other populations of sea otters have showed encouraging signs of recovery, such as 17% to 20% per year in some areas, the California sea otters have progressed at a much slower rate, only 5% to 6% per year. This is due to a higher mortality rate from white shark attack, bacterial and viral infections, toxicity, poisoning, and various infectious diseases.
The various inorganic pollutants traveling with the runoff from human habitations is considered to be the primary threat causing the decreased life span and high mortality rate for Californian sea otters.
In order for southern California’s sea otters to return and live healthy long lives, the quality of the water will need to continue to improve. As more and more Californians see the personal and collective benefits to implementing environmentally friendly alternatives, there seems to be hope yet for creating the right conditions for the sea otters to live.
What You Can Do To Help!
Californians have shown great interest in helping the sea otter populations to recover, and in recent years we have begun to realize the vital role they play on maintaining the overall health of marine ecosystems, particularly the kelp forest.
It is now evident that saving the sea otters not only means preserving this adorable and unique individual species, but it also means saving the foundation of our marine habitats.
There is only so much we can expect our Federal, State and local governments and agencies to achieve for us. The real contribution must come from the way we each chose to live our lives. What we pour down the drains will end up being what the sea otters swim in. By using less chemical detergents and solvents, and choosing to buy environmentally safe house hold products, we can each do our part to make the planet a better place for each and every one of us!