Defenders of Wildlife, Sea Otter Savvy and California State Parks will celebrate Sea Otter Awareness Week September 19-25 with a focus on the living mosaic that forms the sea otter nearshore marine habitat. Sea Otter Awareness Week (SOAW) will include a series of webinars, informative and entertaining livestream and in-person events and attractions in California, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington State.
SOAW puts the spotlight on sea otters and their important role in nearshore ecosystems. During the last week of September each year, Defenders and our partners celebrate SOAW to encourage zoological and educational institutions, governmental agencies and communities to hold events that highlight sea otters. These activities include sharing stories, promoting science and generating media that inspire a deeper awareness of these unique marine mammals, their ecological importance and the many challenges they face.
Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning they have a disproportionate effect on their environment relative to their abundance. As top predators, sea otters are critical to maintaining the balance of nearshore ecosystems, such as kelp forests, bays and estuaries. Without sea otters, sea urchins can overpopulate the seafloor and devour the kelp's cover and food for many other marine animals. By helping to maintain healthy kelp forests, sea otters also indirectly reduce levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a prevalent greenhouse gas, as kelp absorbs and sequesters carbon. Because of the positive role they play in creating biodiversity and restoring habitats, sea otters are often referred to as “ecosystem superheroes.”
“Just by living their lives, sea otters revitalize nearshore habitats, increase biodiversity and help mitigate the effects of climate change,” said Andy Johnson, California representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Sea Otter Awareness Week gives us a chance to celebrate these ecosystem superheroes and discuss ways through which we can coexist at a time when the biggest threat to the sea otter populations is us human beings.”
The SOAW 2021 theme follows the idea of the sea otter’s ecosystem as a mosaic in which the removal of key elements or damage to the system’s structure renders the ecological picture incomplete. Celebrating SOAW this year means remembering the worth of each portion of the living mosaic where sea otters reside and taking care of all its parts.
Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are marine mammals that live along the Pacific coasts of Baja, North America and Russia. Southern sea otters (only in California) weigh between 45 to 65 pounds; northern sea otters can reach up to 100 pounds. They have a lifespan of 10 to 20 years.
Historically, sea otters numbered between 150,000 and 300,000 animals throughout the Pacific Rim. The southern sea otter population, which once consisted of approximately 16,000 animals, is hovering around 3,000 today.
Humans are the biggest threat to sea otter populations. Direct conflicts with humans through shootings, fishing gear entanglements and boat strikes, take a toll on individual sea otters, but oil spills and pollution and disease from the land pose major threats to the species.
“During Sea Otter Awareness Week, we really try to recommit to Sea Otter Savvy’s mission,” said Gena Bentall, director of Sea Otter Savvy. “We want to shift people’s core awareness about sea otters from a superficial level to a deeper understanding about this fascinating and ecologically important species. It’s from that deepened place of awareness that the sea otter’s most enduring and passionate champions emerge.”