Hold onto your kelp, it’s Sea Otter awareness week!
Here at Eco Companion, we are truly excited to kick off the 15th annual Sea Otter Awareness Week!
Accordingly, in this week’s Nature in Focus, we take a closer look at the Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) and examine how this incredible little marine mammal has played such an important role in Nearshore Marine Ecosystems and the challenges this endangered species must overcome.
Native to the coasts of the northern and eastern North Pacific Ocean, this sociable little creature is of vital importance for the health, maintenance, and longevity of kelp forest ecosystems. The Sea Otter is a keystone species, as it plays a crucial role in limiting the abundance of Sea Urchins – which if left unimpeded – would overgraze kelp forests and completely disrupt these delicate marine ecosystems, potentially impacting thousands of other species that call kelp forest ecosystems home.
Often seen floating on their backs in little groups or ‘rafts’, the Sea Otter will dive to depths down to 80m to grab handfuls of invertebrates, bringing them back up to the surface and while floating on their backs, devour their newly acquired treats. Weighing up to 45kg, these furry little critters are the smallest marine mammal but the largest member of the weasel family.
Historically, the Sea Otter was found in high abundance throughout the North Pacific Ocean but due to an extremely detrimental fur trade industry dating back to the 1700’s, the once thriving Sea Otter has been reduced to smaller fragmented populations. In fact, the fur trade industry took such a toll on these little guys, that the Sea Otter was almost hunted to extinction. Fortunately, back in the early 1900’s the Sea Otter was protected with the creation of an international treaty called ‘The North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911’.
Nowadays, the Sea Otter is recovering and was listed as ‘Endangered’ back in the 1970’s. Due to impacts from commercial fishing, habitat degradation, coastal pollution, disease and high mortality rates, the Sea Otter is very much still at risk. In recent years the recovery process has slowed to a standstill at times, as outbreaks of disease, predation by Killer Wales and White Sharks, and habitat degradation have taken a heavy toll.
All is not lost however. Recently the USFWS (United States Fish & Wildlife Service) as well as the U.S. Geological Survey released results from a study conducted in 2016 stating that the total population of Sea Otters was generally increasing, but that the northern and southern sub-populations of the Sea Otter were still declining. The study went on to state that things are looking up for the first time in a long time – as the population surpassed 3,090 for the first time ever – but urged cautioned-optimism.
If the Sea Otter population is to expand and reach maximum productivity, the range of suitable habitat for the Sea Otter must also expand.