Conservation & Science

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…

Playing your part through citizen science

On Earth Day,  Monterey Bay Aquarium staff and volunteers joined in March for Science events along with tens of thousands of people in more than 600 cities around the world. With representatives at marches in seven cities across the U.S. and Europe, the Aquarium stood up for one of our founding principles: that evidence-based science should drive conservation action.

From recording and sharing wildlife observations to reporting stranded sea otters, there are many ways to contribute as a citizen scientist.

It’s clear that the March for Science isn’t just about scientists, and it’s more than a one-day phenomenon. People of all ages and backgrounds participated, because you don’t have to be a trained scientist to appreciate the benefits science offers—or to contribute to the scientific process.

Much of the science taking place at the Aquarium, from saving sea otters to tracking white sharks, relies on dedicated citizens quite literally taking science into their own hands. Thanks to our increasingly connected society, opportunities abound for everyone from middle school students to retired teachers to participate in citizen science at the Aquarium—and beyond. Here are a few of the many ways you can become a citizen scientist. Read more…

Using science to save ocean wildlife

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a science-driven organization, and rigorous science underpins all of our public policy, research and education programs. Much of our research centers on marine life that visitors can also see in our exhibits – from sea otters to sharks and tunas, even our giant kelp forest. Here’s some of what we’ve learned over the past 30-plus years that is contributing to conservation of key ocean species and ecosystems.

A sea otter works to crack a mussel shell open on a rock off the coast of Moss Landing, California. Photo by Jessica Fujii

Sea otters crack open tool-use secrets

Revolutionary female scientist Jane Goodall was the first person to discover that chimps use tools and live within complex social systems. Our team of female researchers are walking in Jane’s footsteps with their recent studies on use of tools by another mammal: the sea otter. When observing sea otters along the Monterey Peninsula, sometimes we can hear a “crack, crack, crack!” above the roar of the tide. That sound comes from sea otters using rocks and other tools to open prey items, such as crabs or bivalves, as they float on their backs. Sea otters are avid tool users, but until recently not much was known about how sea otters choose their tools, what aspects of their environments influence tool use, or whether they teach tool use to other otters. The Aquarium’s decades of research into sea otter behavior provided years of observations of sea otter foraging and tool-use behavior, including sea otter pups pounding empty fists against their chests. Could such activity be instinctual? Research Biologist Jessica Fujii has devoted much of her young career to studying the frequency and types of tools used and whether tool use can be coded in sea otter genes. Jessica is looking ahead to see how sea otters learn, teach, and eventually master tool use in the wild.

A sea otter rests in an eelgrass bed in Elkhorn Slough National
Estuarine Research Reserve. Sea otters contribute to the recovery of eelgrass and ecosystem health in this vital wetland on Monterey Bay. Photo by Ron Eby.

Sea otter surrogacy helps restore Elkhorn Slough

With 15 years of experience rescuing, rehabilitating, and then releasing surrogate-reared sea otters into Elkhorn Slough, an estuary near Moss Landing, California, the sea otter research team at the Aquarium began to wonder how and if their work was affecting the otter population there. Does releasing a few animals into the slough each year really make any difference? After crunching some serious numbers from the surrogacy program and the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) annual sea otter census, the researchers discovered that it did. Nearly 60 percent of the 140 or so sea otters living in Elkhorn Slough today are there as a result of the Aquarium’s surrogacy program. While we’d known that sea otters served as ecosystem engineers for the giant kelp forests in Monterey Bay, we have now documented that sea otters in Elkhorn Slough are restoring the health and biodiversity of the estuary. This gives us further insights into how sea otters may contribute to coastal ecosystem resilience. Read more…

Our surrogate-raised sea otters are helping restore a wetland

Otter 501 meanders through the tidal creeks near Yampah Island in Elkhorn Slough with a dozing pup on her chest. She massages the pup’s rump and blows air into its fur as she makes her way toward a main channel to feed.

To an observer, 501 might look like any other sea otter going about her business. But she’s thriving in the wild today because of a rather remarkable program at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

According to surprising new research, the same can be said of the majority of Elkhorn Slough’s otters.

Read more…

Sea otters are handy with tools

What makes people different from other animals? Scientists used to think the ability to make and use tools was a distinguishing characteristic. That changed in the 1960s, when Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees using sticks to fish termites out of mounds. Now, crows, dolphins and sea otters make the short list of creatures that use tools.

Sea otters dive in shallow coastal waters to collect hard-shelled prey like sea urchins, mussels, abalones, clams and snails. Some shells, like the calcium carbonate armor that protects snails, are harder to crack than others—so otters sometimes use rocks as anvils to break them open.

Read more…

A toast to the coast

Today is Ocean Day, when Monterey Bay Aquarium joins other ocean advocates in Sacramento for a day-long celebration of ocean and coastal health.

We'll bring a message about protecting ocean to the State Capitol for Ocean Day 2016. Photo © Steven Pavlov
We’ll bring a message about protecting ocean health to the State Capitol for Ocean Day 2016. Photo © Steven Pavlov

For the seventh year, the Aquarium is hosting a reception for nearly 200 state legislators, government officials, business executives and ocean advocates—people dedicated to conserving the health and vitality of our state’s ocean and coast.

They’ll enjoy sustainable California seafood rated “Best Choice” by our Seafood Watch program and fine wines from California’s coastal communities. We’ll also present awards to some of California’s strongest ocean champions, honoring the actions they took in 2015 to advance ocean and coastal health.

We have so much to celebrate here in California, thanks to forward-thinking decisions and policies that have made our state a global model for ocean conservation and thriving coastal communities.

Now more than ever, we need to build on our progress and continue to lead by example. This means ensuring we have strong, conservation-minded leaders for agencies like the California Coastal Commission and the Fish and Game Commission.

Three state legislators will receive our California Ocean Champion Award for 2016:

Read more…

Meet our new director of science: Dr. Kyle Van Houtan

Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, a conservation ecologist with expertise in marine biodiversity and global change, has been named director of science at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Dr. Kyle Van Houtan
Dr. Kyle Van Houtan

In his new position, Dr. Van Houtan will manage, coordinate and strengthen our science programs and partnerships. This includes conservation research focused on sea otters, great white sharksPacific bluefin tuna and other iconic California Current species and ecosystems.

For the past six years, he has led several initiatives in global change and protected species from the director’s office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Hawai’i. His research and teaching focus on multi-faceted approaches to marine biodiversity conservation, and his work spans a range of topics from animal behavior, foraging ecology and physiology, to fisheries stock assessments, climate change and ecosystem-based management.

His work includes studies using bomb radiocarbon from Pacific nuclear tests to help in sea turtle conservation.
His work includes studies using bomb radiocarbon from Pacific nuclear tests to help in sea turtle conservation.

His latest research paper uses bomb radiocarbon from Pacific nuclear tests to aid in the conservation of critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles. He has also spoken and written widely about issues of environmental policy and ethics.

Dr. Van Houtan earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia, a master of science from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Duke University, where he serves as an adjunct associate professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment.

A passionate science and conservation communicator, his research has been featured on National Public Radio, in the New York Times, Nature, Science, National Geographic, WIRED andSmithsonian. He is also a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Obama for his pioneering research into how climate influences sea turtle populations.

When he received the award, NOAA Fisheries Chief Science Advisor Richard Merrick, noted that Dr. Van Houtan “has shown how a deep understanding of biology, ecology, and climate science can provide answers to the important question of how climate change can affect animal populations over decades and vast geographies.”

“We are fortunate to have Kyle Van Houtan as our director of science,” said Margaret Spring, vice president of conservation and science, and chief conservation officer for the aquarium. “He brings new perspectives to our work on behalf of iconic ocean wildlife at a time when marine ecosystems face unprecedented challenges from climate change and ocean acidification.”

Learn more about our Conservation Research initiatives.

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