Who can resist a furry face? Especially a face that has between 170,000 and 1 million hairs per square inch. What could I possibly be talking about? Well, sea otters, of course. Enhydra lutris if you require the Latin terminology.
This week, 21-27 September, is Sea Otter Awareness Week (SOAW). It was initiated twelve years ago to inform people to the ongoing plight of the sea otter and the conservation issues surrounding these cute, fuzzy critters.
Sea otters were hunted to the brink of extinction for their fur in the 1800s. Today, they are still considered a threatened species and are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
There are three sub-species of sea otter: Southern/California, Northern, and Russian. The smallest group, the California sea otter, has a population of less than 3,000 individuals. The Northern sub-species, which includes the geographic areas of Washington, Canada and Alaska, has the largest population, which is estimated to be between 65,000 and 78,000, whereas the Russian population is around 15,000 with only about a dozen otters off of Japan.
According to the Defenders of Wildlife website:
Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning their role in their environment has a greater effect than other species. As predators, sea otters are critical to maintaining the balance of the near-shore kelp ecosystems. Without sea otters, the undersea animals they prey on would devour the kelp forests off the coast that provide cover and food for many other marine animals. Additionally, sea otters indirectly help to reduce levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a prevalent greenhouse gas, as kelp forests play an important role in capturing carbon in coastal ecosystems.
Several organizations, including Defenders, are trying to help these marine animals. Even the United States Geological Survey (USGS) is in on the act, by conducting an annual survey of the California sub-species. Developed in 1982, the scientists at the Western Ecological Research Center (WERC) came up with the annual spring survey which consists of two-person teams that spot and count individual sea otters off the coastline in California. The good news for 2014 is that sea otter numbers have remained relatively steady in the past two years. The survey counted 2,939 individuals in 2013, and 2,944 for 2014. However, the Ventura County Fish and Wildlife Service states that “the sea otter population along the mainland coast of California has increased, but much more slowly than other recovering sea otter populations, which have grown at rates of up to 17-20% annually. Southern sea otters along the mainland have never increased more than 5-6% per year”, and it indicates that high mortality rates are the reason for the slow growth. “Causes of death determined from recovered carcasses include white shark attacks, infectious disease (such as encephalitis caused by the protozoal parasites Toxoplasma gondii and Sarcocystis neurona), acanthocephalan worms, bacterial and viral infections, domoic acid toxicity, microcystin poisoning, and cardiac lesions. However, it is not known whether the causes of death in recovered carcasses represent an unbiased picture of mortality in the population as a whole. Food limitation, nutritional deficiencies, and exposure to chemical contaminants are also likely influencing patterns of mortality” (http://www.fws.gov/ventura/endangered/species/info/sso.html).
To help these playful and vital creatures, you can contribute to:
- Defenders of Wildlife: http://www.defenders.org/sea-otter/how-you-can-help
- Friends of the Sea Otter: http://www.seaotters.org/
- Monterey Bay Aquarium: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/conservation/research/saving-sea-otters
- The Otter Project: http://www.otterproject.org/