Worth Defending: California Sea Otter

With their expressive faces and soft, furry bodies, sea otters exude charisma. But when it comes to survival, cute and cuddly doesn’t always cut it.

© William H. Mullins / Accent Alaska

© Michael L. Baird / flickr.bairdphotos.com

As few as 2,800 sea otters call California’s waters home. The population descends from a single remaining colony of about 50 hidden amid the crags of Big Sur, out of sight from fur hunters who nearly wiped out the world’s entire population by the early 1900s. Today, they are at risk from pollution-caused disease, oil spills and fishing gear.

But even in such small numbers, these marine mustelids—related 
to weasels, ferrets and minks—have a profound influence on the marine ecosystem, keeping crucial kelp forests healthy by eating urchins that can overgraze. The otters’ diverse diet includes clams, crabs and mussels, 
which they cleverly crack open with a rock—every otter keeps one 
tucked away in a chest pouch.

Unlike most of their blubbery brethren, sea otters have fur—the densest of any mammal at up to 1 million hairs per square inch—to keep the chilly waters at bay. Because they can’t afford a bad hair day, much time is spent grooming their “do.” If their fur becomes soiled, it’s no longer waterproof and they can freeze to death. That’s one reason oil spills are so lethal.

Despite these amazing adaptations, California sea otters still need our help to keep their heads above water—so they can frolic and we can be charmed throughout this century and into the next.

Saving Something Wild

Defenders is backing the effort to end a no-otter zone—put in place to address fishing interests—that has prevented California sea otters from expanding into some of their native habitat since 1987. Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that allowing the population to naturally expand is the sea otter's best shot at recovery. Defenders also scored an important win for sea otters last year by helping to save the California Sea Otter Fund, which collects donations from state taxpayers who support sea otter conservation. Since 2009, the fund—which supports scientific research to figure out how toxic chemicals and pollution harm otters—has raised more than a million dollars. Defenders supported legislation to renew the fund, which was reauthorized in September.

Read more about sea otters.

More Articles from Spring 2012

Conservationists rush to save a bird on the brink
"Once again, Defenders will make stopping any anti-ESA legislation that emerges our highest priority." - Jamie Rappaport Clark, President, Defenders of Wildlife
When it comes to endangered Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest every one counts—and so do partnerships.
Many people know about the health and environmental benefits of buying organic produce, but far fewer probably realize that those fresh flowers given to a sweetheart or mom likely came at a hefty cost to wildlife.
Defenders strives to lessen the deaths caused by commercial fisheries.
Trying to keep wildlife safe in the midst of large-scale solar projects in the West.
Big Cypress teems with wildlife and is a refuge for the critically endangered Florida panther. But the roads here make it a dangerous place for the big cats, with vehicle collisions one of the leading causes of death.
Outrunning off-road vehicles on Cape Hatteras; Feds help Idaho officials kill wolves.

You may also be interested in:

In the Magazine
On the heels of one of the worst droughts in U.S. history, scientists are questioning the future of a critter that crawls—and swims—under the radar in the streams of the Southeast.
In the Magazine
After being hunted to near extinction about a century ago, sea otters have struggled to recover—facing threats such as oil spills, fishing gear entrapment, food supply shortages and diseases.
In the Magazine
Floating effortlessly on their backs just off the Monterey Bay coast, dozens of dozing sea otters are soaking up the warm southern California sun.