Good News For Sea Otters!
California’s sea otter population is a bit larger this year – good news for a threatened species that plays such a vital role in the health of coastal ecosystems.
Our sea otter research team joined university colleagues, and state and federal wildlife officials, in a spring otter count that tallied 2,941 animals from San Mateo County to the Santa Barbara/Ventura county line to the south.
The 2013 figure includes a record number of pups, which helped boost the three-year population average from the 2,792 average just a year ago. That is cause for “cautious optimism,” according to Tim Tinker, a sea otter biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center.
“Certainly, sea otters have made an impressive recovery in California since their rediscovery here in the 1930s,” Tinker says. “But as their numbers expand along California’s coast, they are facing ‘growing pains’ in different locales.”
Those “growing pains” include everything from disease and parasites, to limits on available food, to a rise in the number of sea otters falling victim to shark bites.
For 30 years, the Aquarium’s sea otter research team has been a key player in collaborative efforts to understand why sea otters are recovering so slowly.
They’ve come a long way.
Presumed extinct in California after the fur trade years, a remnant population of some 50 animals was rediscovered in the 1930s with the opening of Highway 1 along the remote Big Sur coast.
In addition to being a magnet for Central Coast visitors, sea otters are considered a keystone species in coastal ecosystems because they prey on invertebrates that, if left unchecked, can decimate kelp and seagrass beds and the vital 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 that wash into the ocean from land.
Sea otter photo credit: ©Jim Capwell / Divecentral.com
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