Happy Sea Otter Awareness Week!

By: Noel, Sea Otter Trainer
Emma yawning

HAPPY SEA OTTER AWARENESS WEEK!

  That’s right! Starting September 25, sea otter’s get a whole week to help raise awareness about why sea otter conservation is so important. The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas partners with different facilities across the country to promote this worthy cause. During the week of September 25th, trainers and educators will be on hand to answer your burning sea otter questions. The aquarium will premiere a new otter video showcasing Buck and Emma, their trainers, and a variety of enrichment and behaviors. We’ll also have hand outs and activities for kids! So why are sea otter’s so special?

  Besides being cute sea otters are what we call a keystone species; that means if they disappeared from the earth tomorrow our marine ecosystem would be drastically changed. Think about it this way- sea otters eat  A LOT of food. Depending on their age they will actually eat anywhere from 15-50% of their body weight in a given day. That means on average, if you wanted to eat like an otter, and you weighed 100 lbs. you would have to eat 100 quarter pounders EVERY DAY! Here at the aquarium, it actually costs us about $55,000 a year to feed our two full grown sea otters, Buck and Emma. In the wild, they eat over 100 different species on a regular basis. Of all of those species, by far their favorite are sea urchins. So think about the keystone species as a chain. Sea otters eat sea urchins. Sea urchins eat kelp. Kelp provides our oceans with oxygen that other animals like fish need to breath. It also provides habitat, called kelp forest. Often, animals found in these kelp forests are not found anywhere else in the world! If sea otters were to be taken out of the chain, because of how many sea urchins they eat, there would be nothing to eat the sea urchins. The sea urchin population would explode and eat all of the kelp. So because of the keystone species extinction, we would actually see many more species extinctions.

  Sea otters have a very interesting back story. There are 3 different types of sea otters- scientists divide them into 3 different subspecies based on geography: Northern (Alaska, Canada and Washington State), Southern, (California), and Common (Asia and Japan).  From the 17-to early 1900s all three types of sea otters were hunted for their fur during the “Great Fur Trade”. Sea otters have the thickest fur of any animal and at one point a sea otter pelt would fetch a trader $1,500. And you have to remember the time frame- so that was A LOT of money! (We’re talking the equivalent of more than $38,000 today! Imagine paying that much for a single piece of clothing!)

  As a direct result, the sea otter population drastically declined. In fact, estimates will tell you we went from 100,000-150,000 individuals to about 2,000 total individuals. That means about 750 sea otters were killed every year of the fur trade which lasted about 200 years. Once sea otters came under protection in 1911, it was widely thought the Southern sea otter, which is what both Buck and Emma are, was extinct. It wasn’t until 1938 that they were rediscovered when a couple testing their telescope spotted a raft or what we call a group of otters off the coast of Big Sur, CA. Reports about just how many otters were found vary- some will tell you 10, while others will tell you 50 individuals were found that day. Most will say it was somewhere in the middle, probably 30 otters that were found that day. The Southern otter species prior to the fur trade numbered somewhere in the 16,000. In about 200 years we had depleted that number almost completely, in the name of fashion.

  Sea otters became a member of the endangered species list, and today the southern sea otter remains on that list. Numbers for all three subspecies of otters have rebounded to varying degrees. The northern sea otter numbers well in the 100,000s and their population is considered stable, despite the fact that their native range has yet to be fully repopulated, particularly along the Canadian coast. The southern sea otter remains an endangered species today. While their numbers have rebounded from a count of 30 individuals to around 2,500, it is still below the 3,000 count that the southern sea otter will have to reach and maintain or exceed for 3 consecutive years before being removed from the list.

  Scientists are worried because despite the fact that the southern sea otter has been under full federal and in some instances state protection for 100 years now, their numbers have not reflected that protection. Researchers have been evaluating the southern sea otter population for nearly 30 years. Their most recent survey from 2009 paints a very mixed picture. In this survey researchers counted fewer otters than previous years and saw an increase in pup mortality as well as reproductive adults. However, it should also be noted researchers collected fewer dead otters and the pup to independent ratio increased significantly.

  Because sea otters are a keystone species changes in their population will drastically affect a large number of other populations ranging from microscopic algae, all the way to large whales and sharks.

   One of the biggest problems facing sea otters today is pollution in a variety of ways. Marine debris is a large problem in the Pacific Ocean. A more interesting pollution threat are parasites found in your every day household cat. People take their cat litter and pour it down the toilet to get rid of it. That cat litter and feces will eventually make its way to the ocean. These parasites are then picked up by filter feeders that filter the water, which is great because it is getting a lot of this pollution and parasites out of the water. Sea otters love to eat and their favorite thing to eat are those filter feeders. They get these different parasites in their system and cannot deal with them the same way a cat does. In most instances, the results are fatal.

So here are some easy ways to help sea otters out!

  1. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
  2. Keep things out of toilets and sinks that shouldn’t be there.
  3. Get involved in conservation projects like beach sweeps- every little bit helps!
  4. Advocate for sea otter environment protections and sanctuaries.

  If we all do a little, we can do a lot to preserve the sea otter and countless others species for generations to come! The aquarium is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am to 5pm so come celebrate with us and don’t forget to stop by the sea otter exhibit for the 2pm otter trainer chat! Happy Sea Otter Awareness Week!