September 17, 2019
Gena Bentall and Analise Rivero

Sea Otters 

There are few species as iconic to the North Pacific as the sea otter. Tourists flock to the shores of North America’s west coast to watch these charismatic creatures fluff their fur, eat, nap and float together in “rafts” just off our shoreline. These animals, that live in our nearshore waters, are known as “keystone” species ─ despite being one of the smallest marine mammals, they have a super-sized effect on the structure and stability of our kelp forests and thriving ocean ecosystem. However, sea otters were once hunted to near extinction during the maritime fur trade of the 1700 and 1800s.  

Sea otter mom and pup
Manuel Balesteri

A population that once extended continuously along the North Pacific Rim was reduced to a few small remnant colonies. All of today’s estimated 125,000 sea otters worldwide are descended from the survivors in those 13 strongholds. Many thought sea otters had been completely eradicated from California, but the construction of Highway 1 through the rugged cliffs of Big Sur in 1938, revealed a secret known, until then, by just a few locals and biologists ─ an enclave of California’s southern sea otter had survived!  

With protections enacted in the 1970s, the California population has grown to more than 3,000 otters that live along our coast between Santa Barbara and Half Moon Bay. Despite this comeback, the southern sea otter has recovered only a fraction of its estimated historic numbers and range. The iconic sea otters of the California coast still face many threats - including shark attacks, oil spills, plastic and fishing line entanglement, toxic algal blooms and parasitic disease. 

Sea otter range map
USFWS

Worldwide, today’s three subspecies of sea otters face different challenges, and diverse community attitudes about the degree to which their recovery and human endeavors can coexist. From near extinction at the hands of humans, they are returning to their place among the kelp forests and sea grass beds of the North Pacific. But they are returning to a home dramatically altered and exploited by humans in their absence. Will we choose to help or hinder that return?  

For those tasked with protecting sea otters, solutions to some of the threats they face can be challenging. When predators like white sharks take a toll on sea otters, there is little humans can do to help. But individuals can help sea otters by promoting the respectful sharing of space with our wild neighbors: know, follow and share guidelines for safe viewing of sea otters and all kinds of wildlife, model responsible behavior when you are on the water, and foster an ethic of respect and empathy towards all making a living in our coastal community, human and non-human.   

  • Help keep plastic out of the ocean by finding alternatives to single-use plastics
  • Be sure to pick up your trash and dispose of it properly 
  • Help keep beaches clean by picking up litter 
  • When visiting sea otter habitat, be sea otter savvy by giving them plenty of space to avoid disturbing their natural behaviors— “Respect the Nap”! 
  • Are you a California resident? At tax time, you can contribute to the CA Sea Otter Fund on your state tax return 

As they rebound from near extinction, sea otters have brought with them healthy, diverse and more stable coastal ecosystems. Throughout their recovery, scientific study of their effect on habitats has increased our understanding not just of sea otters’ keystone role in kelp forests, but of the importance of predators to many ecosystems. Scientists are just now beginning to understand the ecological role of sea otters in estuaries, and the complexity of their interactions within the diverse kelp forests of California. At a time when we desperately need more sources of carbon-absorbing plant cover, the positive effect of sea otters on abundance of kelp and sea grass makes them part of a global team of predators helping to mitigate climate change. It is ironic for the sea otter that it took such devastation to their numbers for humans to recognize and appreciate the part they play in keeping the coastline where we live, eat, and play, healthy. They are inspiring survivors, but sea otters continue to need our help and, by protecting and recovering this species, we are benefitting our nearshore ecosystem and our coastal communities.   

Sea Otter
Chip Carroon

Sea Otter Savvy 

In spring of 2014, at the Southern Sea Otter Research Update Meeting in Santa Cruz, some of the most influential sea otter agency and organization representatives convened a special working group to address the increasing frequency of disturbance to sea otters by human marine recreation activities. It was here that the idea of a program dedicated to creating awareness of the unique vulnerability of sea otters to disturbance and fostering an ethic of good stewardship, was conceived. Together, we agreed that most disturbance is the result of lack of awareness rather than intent to do harm. Most people paddling up to a raft of wild sea otters have little understanding of sea otter behavior, and no recognition that their actions may be disruptive and harmful.  

Through the collaborative efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and many other partners, a new research and outreach-based program, Sea Otter Savvy, was developed. Since launching in summer of 2015, we have been developing outreach materials, establishing relationships with stakeholders, giving public presentations, recruiting a citizen science team, and conducting research in three central coast regions. In 2019, Sea Otter Savvy and Defenders of Wildlife are beginning a partnership not just to protect sea otters from human disturbance, but to spread awareness about this unique and ecologically important marine mammal.  

Sea Otter Awareness Week 

Sea Otter Awareness Week is held the last week of September each year in recognition of these unique, charismatic marine mammals that are such ecologically important members of our North Pacific coastal ecosystems. Partners in sea otter awareness all over the US (and even worldwide) set aside time at the end of September to share information about sea otter behavior and natural history, conservation, and their role as a keystone species in kelp forests.  

For those active on social media, you can find @SeaOtterSavvy tips and news on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and spread the word with #SeaOtterSavvy and #RespectTheNap. Also follow #SeaOtterAwarenessWeek on social media to see who’s talking about sea otters and visit https://defenders.org/sea-otter-awareness-week to learn about special sea otter events near you! 

Author(s)

Gena Bentall

Gena Bentall

Sea Otter Biologist, Sea Otter Savvy

Since 2001, Gena has worked as a sea otter biologist, studying sea otters in such wide ranging locations as the Aleutian Islands, Russia’s Commander Islands,

Analise Rivero

Analise Rivero

California Program Coordinator
Analise Rivero works on a variety of issues for Defenders’ California Program including climate change, sea otters, and public outreach and organizing.

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