October 24, 2022
Andrew Johnson

Defenders of Wildlife started Sea Otter Awareness Week 20 years ago. Back then, Defenders and a few partners simply wanted to raise people’s appreciation for these unique marine mammals. None of us envisioned that we’d stick with this concept for multiple decades, but here we are! (See this brief bio of Jim Curland, the Defenders’ staffer who started Sea Otter Awareness Week.)

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Sea Otter Awareness Week 2022 logo

We selected Path to Coexistence as this year’s theme to highlight how sea otters help us understand the need to share natural spaces. By their presence in nearshore waters, sea otters encounter us as we work and recreate along coastal areas. To our shame, we degrade their habitat by depositing pollutants and pathogens on the land that wash into the ocean. We disturb them with our boats and our efforts to approach them and take pictures. And we change the climate, forcing them to alter where they live and what they eat as the seas warm, rise and acidify.

But bringing awareness to the challenges our presence imposes on sea otters and other wildlife allows us to face those problems and consider how we might do better.

Last year, we focused on the mosaic-like structure of the sea otter’s ecosystem, in which sea otters establish balance and diversity in kelp forests and estuaries just by living their lives. Several presentations over Zoom discussed reintroducing sea otters to areas where they lived, before the fur trade made them locally extinct in the 19th century, as a means to help revive nearshore ecosystems. This year’s presentations expanded on the reintroduction idea.

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Sea otter raft of four
Ingrid Taylar

Colleague organizations hosted an astonishing assortment of presentations and webinars that covered fascinating aspects of sea otter natural history, behavior, health and management. Please visit our Sea Otter Awareness Week website to access all the presentation recordings.

Bob Bailey, board president of the Elakha Alliance, kicked off the week with an update on his group’s plans to restore sea otters to the Oregon coast. Bob also reviewed the results of a recent scientific feasibility study, which forms an integral part of the Alliance’s strategic plan.

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center at UC Santa Cruz hosted Dr. Melissa Miller, a wildlife pathologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who explained how she and her team connect the dots between pollution on the land and sick sea otters in the ocean. I urge anyone interested in the medical side of sea otter conservation—and who doesn’t mind the occasional gruesome image—to view the recording of Dr. Miller’s presentation.

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Sea otter mother and pup
Ingrid Taylar

The Marine Mammal Center teamed up with Sea Otter Savvy’s We Were Here initiative for a special edition of the Center’s virtual interactive program, Marine Mammal Monday. Sandrine Hazan from the Monterey Bay Aquarium joined Center staff to discuss the care of stranded sea otters and the intricacies of the aquarium’s specialized surrogacy program, which may one day support the reintroduction of sea otters to new areas.

To keep driving discussions about sea otter reintroduction, the Elakha Alliance invited three biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a panel discussion on the findings of a federal reintroduction feasibility assessment about restoring sea otters to northern California and Oregon. The assessment determined that reintroduction is indeed feasible in these regions, and attendees grilled the biologists about the where, when and how of potential reintroductions.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium offered a livestreaming event with its sea otter aquarists, who provided behind-the-scenes details about keeping rescued sea otters mentally and physically stimulated. Later that day, Dr. Rebecca Lewison from San Diego State University presented recent research from one of her graduate students on the positive ecosystem benefits of sea otter recovery in coastal estuaries. Back by popular demand, the Float Down the Coast livestreaming event drew a large audience to hear from colleagues stationed at significant locations for sea otters. From Cook Inlet in Alaska to San Nicolas Island, California, sea otter biologists and naturalists talked about how they study sea otters in the field, mentioned good locations to view them in the wild and shared positive messages about living in harmony with wildlife. Gena Bentall of Sea Otter Savvy and I paddled kayaks into Elkhorn Slough for our segment and managed to stay afloat as we watched several otters resting and feeding in the main channel.

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Raft of Sea Otters Above a Kelp Bed
Lawrence Swayne

Somewhere amid all the week’s activities, a group of us attended a late-season game between the Oakland Athletics and, appropriately enough, the Seattle Mariners, at which Sea Otter Savvy was the official Nonprofit Partner of the Game. We made fine fools of ourselves when the roving camera crew showed us on the stadium’s jumbotron holding the Sea Otter Savvy banner and waving like idiots. Of course, we know that baseball fans appreciate sea otters. As RosemaryEF@otterfan1206 tweeted to the Oakland A’s, “Even though I am a Mets fan, my love of sea otters runs deep.”

Defenders hosted Dr. Edward Gregr from the University of British Columbia for a webinar on how the economic losses expected for commercial invertebrate fisheries where sea otters have recovered are far outweighed by the anticipated increases in tourism, finfish production, biodiversity and carbon sequestration that sea otters bring to these areas. Estimating these costs and benefits is central to understanding the trade-offs that ecosystem managers will face when reintroducing sea otters.

As the week neared its end, Sea Otter Savvy director Gena Bentall and California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Colleen Young unwound at the Elkhorn Yacht Club with tasty beverages and talked about Colleen’s years of experience counting, tracking, diving with and doing necropsies on sea otters. And on the final day of Sea Otter Awareness Week, the Marine Conservation Institute hosted Dr. Erin Foster of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who explained how sea otters increase the genetic diversity of eelgrass when they dig for food in eelgrass beds, making the eelgrass more resilient to environmental change. This latest example of sea otters supporting ecological resilience in sensitive habitats provides additional impetus to restore them to areas where they remain absent.

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Sea otter
NOAA

Engagement for Sea Otter Awareness Week 2022 surpassed our expectations. While our various virtual presentations drew a few thousand sea otter enthusiasts, social media content reached hundreds of thousands of people, and thousands more received sea otter-related messaging in person at zoos, aquariums and natural history museums in the U.S., Canada and Europe. The California Legislature even passed a joint resolution recognizing the 20th anniversary of Sea Otter Awareness Week and acknowledging the vital role that sea otters play in California’s nearshore waters. Next year, we hope to broaden our reach by establishing stronger connections with schools and Tribal groups.

I have worked with sea otters for 40 years. They continue to captivate me and inspire my desire for a world where humans take a lesser toll on nature. Perhaps at Sea Otter Awareness Week 20 years from now, we’ll report that sea otters have reoccupied more of their historical range, and we’ll have learned to coexist with them.

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Annually, throughout the last full week of September, we celebrate sea otters during Sea Otter Awareness Week. The event is organized and sponsored by Defenders of Wildlife, Sea Otter Savvy, California Department of Parks and Recreation, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Elakha Alliance.

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

We’ll see you at the next Sea Otter Awareness Week, September 24–30, 2023!

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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