This week marks the 10th annual Sea Otter Awareness Week, organized to highlight the crucial role sea otters play in our coastal marine environments. In this month’s “Road to Recovery,” you’ll learn about the threatened sea otter and what Defenders of Wildlife is doing in California to help their populations rebound.
Did you know the sea otter is the heaviest member of the weasel family and is also the second smallest marine mammal in the world? Well, sometimes looks can be deceiving. These furry little critters are taking smalls steps towards a big recovery!
Four feet long and weighing up to 65 lbs, southern sea otters are very different from both their terrestrial weasel cousins and other marine mammals. In order to keep warm, otters have a two-layer fur coat that prevents their skin from getting wet and lowers the potential risk of hypothermia. Because they have no blubber, these ocean dwellers have between 600,000 and 700,000 hairs per square inch to keep their bodies insulated. Like a few other animals, including humans, other primates, and some birds, otters are known to use tools when eating. Sea otters like to eat mussels, crabs, snails and sea urchins, and use rocks as hammers to open the shells.
Historically, sea otters once thrived along California’s coast. But as a result of the thriving fur trade from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, a population of around 16,000 animals plummeted to as few as 50. In the modern era, the combined threats of oil spills, disease from living in polluted water, and getting caught in fishing nets put this last remnant otter population on the path to extinction.
Fortunately, in 1977 the southern sea otter was listed under the Endangered Species Act and identified as a depleted species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. California also designates the otter as “fully protected” under the Fish and Game Code. With these protections in place, otters have begun to make a comeback: from a scant 50 individuals, the population has rebounded to around 2,900 animals.
As otters struggle to recover, scientists have discovered that these animals are also helping to boost the health of water-dwelling plants. Past research has shown that sea otters are key to the health of the kelp forests in which they live. Sea otter eat sea urchins, who love to eat kelp, and keep the urchin population in balance with the kelp forest. Without sea otters, kelp forests are quickly demolished by hungry urchins. New research now shows that sea otters are important to the health of seagrass. Seagrass along the central Californian coast was considered to be on its way to extinction before sea otters returned. Nitrogen-rich fertilizer runoff from farms and urban areas was being rinsed into the state’s coastal waters. Nutrient pollution from fertilizer kills seagrass by promoting algae growth, and can create some of the most polluted water systems in the entire world. Now scientists recently found that sea otters are actually fighting the effects of poor water quality in seagrass ecosystems. By eating the crabs that eat the sea slugs that eat the algae on seagrass, sea otters indirectly keep algae levels down. As healthy seagrass levels increase, seagrass meadows function as a habitat for fish and can even help combat climate change. This research shows that sea otters are a key part of the food web for seagrass meadows, just as they are for kelp forests.
Defenders has worked in California to secure additional funding for important scientific research into sea otter health through the creation of the California Sea Otter Fund. This fund was created in 2006 when Defenders of Wildlife worked with California lawmakers to create a line item in the California Income Tax Form for people to voluntarily contribute to the sea otter fund. By simply checking off a box on state tax forms, California citizens are able to voluntarily contribute money toward important scientific research that benefits sea otters. Because the tax funds must reach a certain amount for the check box to be included again the following year, voluntary contributions are crucial for the continuation of this fund. Fortunately, the California Sea Otter Fund has raised over 1.7 million dollars since it was created in 2006. However, this year, we are currently $10,000 short of the requirement to raise $273.025. If you pay taxes quarterly, you can still contribute – click here to learn more.
Defenders of Wildlife also developed Sea Otter Awareness Week in 2003 as an opportunity to broadly educate the public about sea otters, their natural history and the conservation issues they are facing. Sea Otter Awareness Week occurs each year during the last week of September. Every year, researchers, zoos and aquariums, marine institutions, the conservation community, and businesses around the country come together to interact with, inform and involve the public in sea otter research and conservation.
Enacted forty years ago, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been the most powerful legal tool available in the fight to save the southern sea otter from extinction. Not only does the ESA forbid the intentional killing or harassing of individual sea otters, it also ensures that accidental killings (such as in gillnet fishing gear and oil spills) are prevented or minimized as well. The ESA also mandates that a recovery plan be implemented to bring the population itself back up to healthy numbers. The ESA’s strong legal protections, as well as its science-based recovery planning process, helps ensure that southern sea otters will not only survive, but one day thrive throughout their historic range.
But a rollback of these legal protections for the sea otter, as some in Congress and the fishing industry want to see, would imperil not only the sea otters, but also the seagrass and kelp ecosystems in which they are keystone species – which will mean fewer fish, sicker oceans, and a warmer planet. It is up to organizations such as Defenders of Wildlife, supportive members of Congress and the nation’s concerned citizens to show support for threatened species such as the sea otter and stand up for our natural heritage before it is too late.
Want to know how you can help save southern sea otters?