October 15, 2021
Andrew Johnson

While celebration is always the name of the game for Sea Otter Awareness Week, the sea otter population in California continues to struggle, and these beloved animals face natural and human-caused threats throughout their territory around the Pacific Rim. The population trend in California has shifted downward in recent years and otters haven’t extended their range north or south for more than two decades. Given that, several of this year’s Sea Otter Awareness Week virtual presentations focused on the feasibility of reintroducing sea otters into areas of their historical range.

The theme this year, Ecosystem Mosaic, followed the idea of the sea otter’s ecosystem as a work of art, in which the removal of key elements or damage to its structure renders the ecological picture incomplete. Through sheer serendipity, we discovered the work of mosaic artist Juan Lopez and arranged to use an image of a 25-foot-long mural he created and installed at Montclair Elementary School in Oakland, California, on our website. The mosaic, “Otters’ Delight,” depicts two sea otters diving in a vibrant kelp forest. This image provided extra inspiration for us to create an amazing program of in-person and virtual events.

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Juan Lopez sea otter mural
Juan Lopez

On various days and at various times during the week, Sea Otter Savvy, California State Parks, the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum and the Seymour Marine Discovery Center staffed in-person viewing stations along the range of the southern sea otter, from Santa Cruz down to Avila Beach. The hosts at the viewing station in Morro Bay interacted with close to 1,000 visitors. A dozen or more sea otters tend to congregate close to the shoreline at a site known as Target Rock, so visitors were able to engage with docents and had great views of the otters.

Most of the organizations that hosted virtual events during the week recorded their presentations, so check Defenders’ Sea Otter Awareness Week website for all event recordings. Along with these virtual events, dozens of zoos and aquariums, conservation organizations, educational institutions, governmental agencies and other groups created in-person activities; shared fun sea otter stories, images and videos over social media; and disseminated new research findings and general information about sea otters. 

In a presentation hosted by Defenders, Peter Hatch, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and a board member with the Elakha Alliance in Oregon, shared his views on the cultural importance of restoring sea otters to a significant portion of their historical range. Defenders also hosted an event with Alaska artist Kari Becker, who led a virtual art class where attendees created paintings of the biodiverse habitat of the sea otter.

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Sea otter in Kenai Fjords National Park
Jim Pfeiffenberger/NPS

Point Reyes National Seashore Association hosted a talk by Dr. Josh Smith on how two unprecedented events—a marine heatwave and a die-off of sea stars—led to a sea urchin outbreak that ravaged the kelp system along the West Coast. Smith described how this changing ecosystem has helped fine-tune our understanding of the sea otter’s critical role in maintaining the health of the kelp forest mosaic.

Seagrass ecologist Dr. Brent Hughes gave two talks, one hosted by the Seymour Marine Discovery Center and another hosted by the Marine Conservation Institute. Hughes offered sea otters as a model species for investigating how the recovery of a top marine predator impacts ocean ecosystems. He also spoke about the conditions and challenges that will guide the return of sea otters to unoccupied areas of California where they roamed before the fur trade caused localized extinction of the species.

California State Parks and Sea Otter Savvy had to cancel their Float Down the Coast livestream on September 21 because of technical gremlins; however, organizers recorded the event, which included short informational talks from sea otter experts at coastal sites ranging from Año Nuevo State Park to Baja, Mexico. 

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Southern sea otter at Moss Landing, California
Lilian Carswell/USFWS

The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC) hosted a joint presentation by Sophia Lyon and Jane Rudebusch, who relayed findings from their graduate projects on sea otters at the northern extent of their range in California and on the potential for migration or reintroduction into areas of their historical range in San Francisco Bay and northern California. In a separate event, TMMC interviewed Dr. Heather Harris, one of their associate veterinarians, and Mike Harris, a senior biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, about their work to save sea otters. Among the presentation’s highlights was a short video of Harris reuniting a sea otter pup with its mother in Morro Bay.

The Central Coast Aquarium hosted two talks by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo researchers who discussed the remarkable abilities of these animals to survive in chilly waters. Dr. Heather Liwanag spoke about the metabolic adaptations that sea otters have made to regulate their body temperature while graduate student Kate Riordan explained the thermal and buoyant qualities of pup and adult fur.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s social media team livestreamed a feeding session from their sea otter exhibit and conducted a fun chat with sea otter aquarist Stephany Simmons about her job taking care of the aquarium’s resident otters.

Sea Otter Awareness Week featured Sea Otter Savvy’s We Were Here program, which is dedicated to educating communities and stakeholders about the effects that the absence of sea otters has had in their regions, and the positive ecological and socioeconomic impacts that a return of sea otters might confer. 

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Sea otter, BLM
David Ledig/BLM

On September 23, the We Were Here program co-hosted a COVID-safe event at The Exploratorium in San Francisco featuring Ohlone Cafe co-founders Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino. In a series of three short presentations, they recounted the long history of sea otters and humans in northern California—the thriving pre-colonial otter populations, the near-extinction of sea otters and the harms caused to Native peoples during the fur trade, as well as today’s efforts to restore and coexist with sea otters once again. We Were Here has created a stakeholder survey for people to weigh in on the idea of reintroducing sea otters to areas where they’ve remained absent from for more than a century. We encourage you to add your thoughts!

Although Gena Bentall of Sea Otter Savvy had to cancel her talk on sea otter coexistence for the Central Coast State Parks Association’s Virtual Mind Walks lecture series, people can now register for this presentation, which has been rescheduled for December 17.

Next year, we’ll observe the 20th anniversary of Sea Otter Awareness Week. Naturally, we expect everyone to plan their entire year around the last full week of September 2022, when we’ll present a new program of activities in celebration of the splendid sea otter.

To receive weekly updates and information about sea otter conservation work, please join Defenders of Wildlife’s Sea Otter Facebook Group.

Author(s)

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Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson

California Representative
As California Representative, Andy's work focuses on sea otter issues in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, and he covers threats to California’s coastal ecosystems and wildlife, such as plastics and other ocean pollution, fisheries, energy development, human disturbance and climate change.
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