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USGS Analyzing Sea Otter Death Data

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Sea otter feeding on crab in Monterey Bay.Above: Sea otter feeding on crab in Monterey Bay. Photograph by Tania Larson, USGS, taken August 9, 2007. [larger version]

Tim Tinker
Above: Tim Tinker, a research wildlife biologist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center (WERC), leads the center's sea otter projects. He is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Photograph by Paul Laustsen, USGS, taken in August 2008. [larger version]

Southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) are on the federal threatened-species list, and their population growth has been puzzlingly sluggish and inconsistent (see "California Sea Otter Numbers Drop Again," Sound Waves, December 2010). These furry predators remain an icon of the California coast, and so when word spreads about a record year for sea otter deaths, it quickly captures the public's attention.

In late January, researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Western Ecological Research Center (WERC) prepared a preliminary summary of sea otter deaths (called "strandings") observed in 2010, which showed a record number of 304 recovered otter carcasses. The data were shared with research colleagues and local stakeholders. (See tables in PDF format (56 KB) posted at http://www.werc.usgs.gov/fileHandler.ashx?File=/outreachdocs/2011/2010 southern sea otter stranding summary_1.pdf.)

"The USGS and its partners are currently analyzing the 2010 stranding data in the context of 25 years of sea otter observations in California," says Tim Tinker, lead scientist for sea otter research at WERC. The researchers expect to submit their findings for review and publication later this year.

USGS scientists normally prefer to carefully assess and compare new data before educating the public about overall results and implications. The 2010 preliminary data, however, do offer some hints about stranding trends:

  • 304 strandings represent about 11 percent of the current population estimate, an increase from the 8 to 10 percent reported in the recent decade.
  • 32 percent of recovered carcasses were of adult and subadult females—potential mothers—an increase from pre-2008 figures of 27 percent.
  • Carcass necropsies revealed diseases from several chemical and biological factors, including toxins from inland lakes. (See related news release from the University of California, Santa Cruz.)
  • 22 percent of recovered carcasses showed signs of fatal shark attack, up from pre-2000 figures of 10 percent. (See related news release from the California Department of Fish and Game.)

"Our past research indicates that only about half of sea otters that die in the wild are ever recovered, so a single year's numbers can't be considered an accurate or unbiased indicator of population mortality," says Tinker. "Nonetheless, the number of dead sea otters observed—relative to population estimates—has been elevated in recent years, so we're trying to discover why."

The California Sea Otter Stranding Network (visit http://www.werc.usgs.gov/seaottercount and click "Stranding Network" on left), which was implemented by the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) in 1968, is currently overseen by the USGS with support from the CDFG. The purpose of this network is to verify all reports of stranded sea otters in California and to recover the carcasses whenever possible. The network is composed primarily of the USGS WERC; the CDFG Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, which also conducts necropsies; the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Research and Conservation program (SORAC); the California Academy of Sciences; the Marine Mammal Center; and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Additional agencies and organizations also contribute stranding data and conduct studies of the southern sea otter population.

As part of the federal southern sea otter recovery and management plan, the USGS will once again conduct its annual sea otter population survey along the California coast in spring 2011 (visit http://www.werc.usgs.gov/seaottercount and click "Sea Otter Surveys"). An ongoing USGS-led study of radio-tagged sea otters in Monterey and Big Sur is comparing the health, behavior, diet, and survival rates of sea otters at these sites, to investigate the impacts of human stressors on sea otter populations. Also, USGS scientists in California, Washington, and Alaska are collaborating with state, federal and Canadian colleagues to study sea otters throughout the Pacific coast of North America. By comparing the coastal environments and sea otter health at these different locations, the USGS hopes to discern the health of our nearshore ecosystems (see "USGS Launches Multidisciplinary Investigation of Northeast Pacific Sea Otter Populations and Nearshore Ecosystems," Sound Waves, March 2010) and any potential implications for our natural and economic resources.

For more information about WERC sea otter research, visit http://www.werc.usgs.gov/seaottercount.

Note: The original version of this article, with additional links, appeared January 24, 2011, on the USGS WERC Outreach Web page, http://www.werc.usgs.gov/outreach.aspx.

Related Sound Waves Stories
California Sea Otter Numbers Drop Again
December 2010
USGS Launches Multidisciplinary Investigation of Northeast Pacific Sea Otter Populations and Nearshore Ecosystems
March 2010
2009 Spring Survey Shows Drop in California Sea Otter Numbers
September 2009
Food Choices and Location Influence California Sea Otter Exposure to Disease
March 2009

Related Web Sites
Sea Otter Studies at WERC
2010 Southern Sea Otter Stranding Summary [56 KB PDF]
Sea otter deaths linked to toxin from freshwater bacteria
Univ. of California, Santa Cruz
Sea Otter Deaths From Shark Bites on the Rise
California Department of Fish and Game
Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center
California Department of Fish and Game
Sea Otter Research and Conservation
Monterey Bay Aquarium
California Academy of Sciences
San Francisco, CA
Marine Mammal Center
Sausalito, CA
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Santa Barbara, CA

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Powerful Earthquake, Devastating Tsunami in Japan

Gulf of Mexico's Deep-Water Coral

Analyzing Sea Otter Death Data

CO2calc—a User-Friendly Seawater-Carbon Calculator

Outreach USGS Drifter Comes Ashore 40 Years After Release

Linking Marine Aquariums to Marine Research and Conservation

Boston University Students Visit Woods Hole

Meetings South Bay Science Symposium

Staff and Center News Intern from Sweden Assisting USGS Staff in Florida

Publications Online Guide for Diatoms

March 2011 Publications

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