Conservation & Science

California leaders make progress for the ocean

This year, the California Legislature got things done for our state’s beautiful ocean and coast — and we were a part of it. The Aquarium spoke up in support of science-based legislation for a healthy ocean, and several of these bills were signed into law. These important new policies will:

  • Improve youth access to our state parks,
  • Leverage nature’s most powerful tools against climate change, and
  • Cut back on waste by encouraging reusable containers at restaurants and food trucks.

Here’s a closer look at all the state accomplished.

Read more…

The feel-good science behind sea otter surrogacy

Surrogate-reared otter released into Elkhorn Slough by Monterey Bay Aquarium
A new study reveals the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program bolsters the local otter population. Here, a surrogate-reared otter leaps into Elkhorn Slough on California’s central coast.

Ask not (only) what you can do for sea otters, but what sea otters can do for California.

That’s one of the thoughts on the minds of Aquarium scientists in the wake of a new study, which confirms the power of sea otters to restore coastal ecosystems.

Since 2002, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has reared rescued sea otter pups for release to the wild. Female otters in our exhibit serve as their “surrogate mothers,” teaching them critical life skills like how to groom themselves and forage. The hope is that when the pups are released in Elkhorn Slough, a wetland 20 miles north of the Aquarium, they’ll be able to thrive on their own.

A newly published study confirms that these surrogate-reared pups are surviving as well as their wild kin—and the resulting bump in the otter population at Elkhorn Slough is helping to restore the estuary ecosystem.

The remarkable success of the Aquarium’s program, documented in Oryx, highlights a tremendous opportunity: to help sea otters contribute to the revival of other coastal estuaries along the California coast. Read more…

Using archaeology to uncover sea otters’ historical habitats

When a hungry sea otter uses a rock to crack open a tasty mussel, it’s doing something unique among marine mammals: using a stone tool. Researchers are now revealing how this behavior makes it possible to study sea otters’ past through the lens of archaeology.

A sea otter cracks open a mussel shell using a shoreline “anvil rock”.

Sea otters use large stationary stones like anvils, to smash open mussel shells. Their hammering leaves distinctive marks on the rock. An ideal place to document this behavior is just a short drive up the coast from the Aquarium, near Elkhorn Slough.

It’s an area that Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers like Jessica Fujii have monitored for years. Southern sea otters are a threatened species, and many of the orphaned pups reared by the Aquarium’s one-of-a-kind surrogacy program end up joining the wild population in Moss Landing Harbor. Years of data on sea otter foraging gathered by Aquarium researchers showed otters like to dine near the Bennett Slough culverts at the north end of the harbor.

“We have observations spanning about ten years in this location, both on wild animals that have no tags, and also sea otters that were raised at the Aquarium and successfully transitioned to the wild,” says Jessica, who has also monitored wild sea otters (while avoiding brown bears) in Alaska. Read more…

Diving into sea otter recovery in Alaska’s Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska is home to more than twice as many northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) as all of California is to southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). Studying the thriving northern species may hold important clues for the future of the recovering southern species. In August, Monterey Bay Aquarium researcher Jessica Fujii spent two weeks studying the Glacier Bay population in the wild.

When she’s not studying sea otters in Alaska during the summer, Jessica Fujii observes otter behavior around Monterey Bay. Photo by Michelle Staedler

Jess is a senior research biologist with the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program. She studies both wild sea otters and pups raised by surrogate otters so they can be returned to the wild—as was the case with two juvenile males earlier this month.

“Mostly I’m looking at sea otter behavior and foraging ecology—what they’re eating and what that may tell us about the rest of the ecosystem,” Jess says. “It involves a lot of going out in the field and watching the otters from shore.”

This summer, she worked aboard the Alaskan Gyre, a 50-foot U.S. Geological Survey vessel.

“It looks like a fishing boat, but it’s been converted for research purposes,” she says. “What used to be the fish hold is now sleeping quarters and storage.” With six or seven others aboard, “it was cozy; there’s not a lot of extra space.”

The converted fishing boat Alaska Gyre was home base for scientists working in Glacier Bay.

The trip was part of a longstanding collaboration between the Aquarium and researchers with the USGS Alaska Science Center. The two groups sometimes share insights and help each other observe or capture sea otters: “Having that crossover can be really helpful,” Jess says. “It’s also a way to make sure we’re maintaining comparable methods.”

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Sea otters’ perilous path to recovery

For more than 30 years, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been a key contributor to sea otter recovery in California. Aquarium researchers and policy experts have advanced scientific knowledge, promoted improved management and raised public awareness of the contributions sea otters make to healthy coastal ecosystems. A new research paper in the journal Ecography draws on three decades of Aquarium research to establish a link between sparse kelp cover along the California coast and a recent rise in sea otter mortalities from white shark bites. The finding illuminates a new challenge for everyone working toward sea otter recovery: Will sea otters be able to run the gauntlet of white sharks and expand back into their historical range without human assistance? Conservation Research staffer Athena Copenhaver explores the challenge.

Senior research biologist Teri Nicholson fans out her left hand, tapping each finger as she recites a brief list of unusual names: Jiggs, Goldie, Hailey, Milkdud . . .

Exhibit sea otters like Rosa play a key role behind the scenes, as surrogate mothers rearing stranded otter pups.

They might sound as though they belong to beloved pets, but Teri is actually recalling the stranded southern sea otter pups taken in by Monterey Bay Aquarium back in 1984.

Although Teri and her colleagues didn’t know it at the time, these first four orphaned pups became foundational data points in a pioneering sea otter study that spans the lifetime of the Aquarium.

The study, recently published in Ecography, uses information collected from 725 live-stranded sea otters between 1984 and 2015 to illuminate the critical relationship between a healthy kelp canopy, sea otter population recovery, and sea otter deaths from white shark bites.

Sea otter pups, rescued and raised by the Aquarium, are contributing to recovery of the wild population. Photo © Sea Studios Foundation

“By rescuing and rehabilitating stranded animals, we can observe symptoms and determine possible reasons the animal might have stranded,” explains Teri. “And, that means we can look for patterns in threats otters face over time.” Read more…

Blood, bone and brainpower: A deep dive into sea otter DNA

Being a sea otter might sound simple: swim, snack, nap, repeat. Glorious.

Gidget is the face of the sea otter genome.

But the task before Annabel Beichman, a PhD candidate now in her fifth year at UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is monstrously complex. Annabel is investigating everything that makes up a sea otter, down to its DNA. She hopes what she learns will contribute to recovery of a species that plays a critical role in the health of coastal ecosystems.

Annabel’s effort to sequence the southern sea otter genome (which she wrote about for us last year) is tied to the Monterey Bay Aquarium by one of our exhibit otters, a 9-year-old female with a blonde, gray-streaked face, named Gidget. Through the DNA that Annabel has been laboring to sequence, assemble and annotate, Gidget will become the embodiment of the sea otter genome. And the work is nearly complete.

‘A reference point for generations’

“Gidget is going to be a reference point for future genetic studies of southern sea otters for years to come,” Annabel says. That research stands to help a species that has been listed as threatened for decades. So, she says, “Gidget’s contributing to the conservation of her entire species.” Read more…

California’s sea otters need more space to grow

Southern sea otters are a common (and adorable) sight off the Aquarium’s back deck. But the latest otter count shows the population isn’t growing at the pace we’d hoped it would. In order for the species to truly recover, otters need to return to their old habitats along California’s coast—places they haven’t inhabited for over 100 years.

For the second year in a row, California’s sea otter population index has topped an encouraging number: 3,090. That’s the minimum threshold before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can consider delisting southern sea otters as a federally threatened species.

A southern sea otter with her newborn pup in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Great Tide Pool. Photo by Tyson Rininger

But the 2017 sea otter count is down quite a bit from 2016 levels, and even the three-year rolling average (the population index), on which federal wildlife managers base their decisions, is down by about 100.

Regardless of year-to-year variations, southern sea otters number far fewer today than they did historically, and their current geographic range represents just a fraction of the waters they occupied before fur traders drove them to the brink of extinction in the 19th century.

To reach the optimum sustainable population under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan, the southern sea otter population would likely have to reach at least 8,400 animals in California alone.

A remnant colony of sea otters was rediscovered off the Big Sur coast in the 1930s. Photo © William L. Morgan/California Views Photo Archives

“What we really want to see is the population reinhabiting areas of its historical range,” says Andrew Johnson who, as conservation research operations manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium,  oversees the sea otter program. “We’ve seen how positively coastal ecosystems respond to the presence of sea otters—from the return of thriving kelp beds along the rocky coast, to renewed productivity of wetlands like Elkhorn Slough. We know that many other areas along the California coast would benefit significantly from sea otters’ return.” Read more…

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