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California’s Sea Otter Numbers Continue Slow Climb

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California sea otter numbers are up, according to the latest population survey led by Federal, State and university scientists. The reasons: more pups and the addition of San Nicolas Island sea otters to the population count.

Sea otter with pup in her arms.
Above: Sea otter with pup in her arms, Morro Bay, California, March 23, 2007. Photograph by “Mike” Michael L. Baird. [larger version]

Since the 1980s, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists have calculated an averaged population index each year for the southern sea otter—Enhydra lutris nereisa federally listed threatened species found in California. For the 2013 report, the USGS lists the population index as 2,941. For southern sea otters to be considered for removal from threatened species listing, the population index would have to exceed 3,090 for three consecutive years, according to the threshold established under the Southern Sea Otter Recovery Plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

“Population growth in central California has faltered recently, so the fact that we’re seeing a slightly positive trend is a basis for cautious optimism,” says Tim Tinker, a biologist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center who supervises the annual survey. “Certainly, sea otters have made an impressive recovery in California since their rediscovery here in the 1930s. But as their numbers expand along California’s coast, they are facing different ‘growing pains’ in different locales. Our research partnership is investigating the factors responsible for these local trends.”

Researchers from the USGS, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Office of Spill Prevention and Response, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and other institutions collaborate annually to conduct the sea otter survey. To compensate for year-to-year variability in observation conditions and to give scientists a more reliable picture of sea otter abundance trends, the population index reported to USFWS is calculated as 3-year averages of raw data from annual surveys. (As an example, the population index for 2009 is the average of data from 2007, 2008, and 2009.)

“We counted a record number of pups this year, which led to the uptick in the 3-year average,” says USGS biologist Brian Hatfield, coordinator of the annual survey. “A high pup count is always encouraging, although the number of adult otters counted along the mainland was almost identical to last year’s count, so we’ll have to wait and see if the positive trend continues.” 

Map of central California showing the sea otter’s habitat in near-shore coastal waters.
Above: Map of central California showing the sea otter’s habitat in near-shore coastal waters (colored strip along coast) with color shading indicating the relative abundance of otters at each point along the coast (yellow to red = low to high densities, measured as otters per 500 meters of coastline). From “Annual Survey - 2013 Summary”. [larger version]

There is a second reason for the higher population index reported this year. In 2013, the equation for this population index was amended to add sea otters living at San Nicolas Island. In the 1980s, 140 sea otters were introduced to the island as part of a USFWS recovery experiment, but most of them returned to the mainland, died, or simply disappeared. USFWS completed an extensive review of the translocation program (PDF, 600 KB) in December 2012, resulting in termination of the program. As a consequence, sea otters at San Nicolas Island are no longer considered to be an “experimental” population and will now be included as part of the California-wide population index for southern sea otter recovery. The population at the island is currently at 59 individuals, a mix of original translocated animals and their offspring.

Plot of southern sea otter population trends along the mainland coast of California and at San Nicolas Island over the period 1990–2013.
Above: Plot of southern sea otter population trends along the mainland coast of California and at San Nicolas Island over the period 1990–2013. Trend lines for the mainland (left vertical axis) are shown as “3-year running averages” of independents (dashed green line) and total otters (solid blue line). For example, the 3-year average of total otters for 1998 is the average of the total counts for 1996, 1997, and 1998. For San Nicolas Island (right vertical axis, note scale difference) the trend line (lowest line, in red) represents the annual high counts. The range-wide index of abundance (left vertical axis) is also shown for 2013. From “Annual Survey - 2013 Summary”. [larger version]

Statewide Trends and Local Questions

USGS scientists also annually update a database of sea otter strandings—the number of dead, sick, or injured sea otters recovered along California’s coast each year. In 2012, scientists from CDFW, USGS, Monterey Bay Aquarium and other institutions came across a total of 368 stranded sea otters.

This stranding number accounts only for sea otters that people find (see “Report a Stranding”), and past research indicates that possibly less than 50 percent of sea otters that die in the wild end up on the beach. But efforts are made to examine each reported sea otter carcass, and a subset of fresh carcasses are sent to the CDFW Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, where scientists conduct necropsies to determine the primary causes of death and identify factors that may have contributed to the death of each animal. 

Data from both living and deceased sea otters continues to shed light on sea otter population ecology in different parts of the California coast. For example, a high proportion of sea otter carcasses recovered between Cayucos and Pismo Beach in recent years have white shark bite wounds (see “2012 Stranding Summary”), a potential explanation for the downward trend in sea otter numbers in that area. In Elkhorn Slough, a new study suggests that sea otter appetites for crabs can improve the health of seagrass beds (see “Sea Otters Promote Recovery of Seagrass Beds,” this issue). And at the southern end of California sea otters’ mainland range, researchers are observing sea otter feeding and movement behavior to understand their slow southward expansion.

“Overall trends are important, but they can mask problems that may be affecting only a portion of the population,” says Lilian Carswell, Southern Sea Otter Recovery Coordinator for USFWS. “These regional research projects help us understand the effects of local influences, whether human-caused or natural, and inform the overall southern sea otter recovery strategy.”

Survey Methodology

The annual population index is calculated from visual surveys conducted along the California coastline by researchers, students, and volunteers from the USGS, CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, Monterey Bay Aquarium, UC Santa Cruz, USFWS, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the Santa Barbara Zoo.

Surveys are conducted via telescope observations from shore and via low-flying aircraft, typically from April through June. This year, the surveyed coastline spanned Point San Pedro in San Mateo County south to Rincon Point near the Santa Barbara/Ventura County line, and also San Nicolas Island.

The annual survey was interrupted in 2011, when weather conditions prevented completion of the mainland survey.

Sea Otter Facts

  • Sea otters were presumed extinct in California after the fur-trade years but were rediscovered in the 1930s by the public, when as few as 50 animals were documented in nearshore areas off the coast of Big Sur.
  • Sea otters are considered a keystone species of the kelp ecosystem because they prey on herbivorous invertebrates—such as sea urchins—that, if left unchecked, can decimate kelp beds and the fish habitat they provide.
  • Scientists also study sea otters as an indicator of nearshore ecosystem health, since sea otters feed and live near the coast and often are the first predators exposed to pollutants and pathogens washed down from coastlands, such as the microbial toxin microcystin.
  • The public can report sightings of stranded sea otters to institutions listed on the “Report a Stranding” website.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Sea Otters Promote Recovery of Seagrass Beds
Sept. / Oct. 2013
Recovery Slows for California's Sea Otters, 2012 Survey Shows
Nov. / Dec. 2012

Related Websites
California Sea Otter Surveys and Research
Sea Otter Recovery Plan
CDWF Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center

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cover story:
Changing Coral Reef Ecosystems Along West Maui

California's Sea Otter Numbers Continue Slow Climb

Research Experts Team Up on Tsunami Resilience in California

Historical Quake and Early East Coast Seismicity

Sea Otters Promote Recovery of Seagrass Beds

2013 Meeting of the Curators of Marine and Lacustrine Geological Samples Group

Publications California Seafloor Mapping Reveals Hidden Treasures

Proceedings of the Workshop on Probabilistic Flood Hazard Assessment

Sept. / Oct. Publications

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