Conservation & Science

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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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…

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.

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Sea otter numbers are up. So, what does it mean?

The California sea otter population in 2015 has reached its highest level since fur traders hunted otters to near-extinction in the 19th century. But prospects for recovery of the threatened species are much more complicated than the numbers imply.

A recent spike in sea urchins, a favorite prey item for sea otters, may be partly responsible for this year’s higher count, according to U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researchers. At the same time, there’s growing concern that bites from white sharks are killing high numbers of sea otters at the northern and southern ends of their range – precisely the areas where the population must grow to expand into historic sea otter habitat along the California coast.

By eating sea urchins and other grazing animals, sea otters allow kelp forests to thrive. Photo by Neil Fisher
A spike in the sea urchin population may have contributed to this year’s rise in sea otter numbers. Photo by Neil Fisher

“There’s much more to the story here than the main finding would suggest,” cautions Dr. Tim Tinker, a research ecologist who leads the USGS sea otter research program, in collaboration with the Monterey Bay Aquarium sea otter team and other colleagues. “We’re looking into various factors that may be affecting the survey results.”

In 2015, the three-year average of the population reached 3,054 animals. Under the current federal recovery plan, to be considered for removal from threatened status, the average sea otter count must be more than 3,090 animals for three consecutive years.

Even if they come off the threatened species list, sea otters would be safeguarded as a depleted species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The recovery plan estimates at least 8,400 animals represents the lower end of an “optimum sustainable population” in California.

Sea otter in kelp-USGS-
Sea otters play a vital role in maintaining the health of coastal kelp forest ecosystems. USGS photo by Benjamin Weitzman.

“Seeing the population increase is encouraging, but we believe success will only come when we have a fully recovered and sustainable population of sea otters as part of a healthy marine ecosystem along the entire California coast,” says Andrew Johnson, the aquarium’s sea otter program manager.

For more than 30 years, our research program has worked to understand the critical role sea otters play in the health of coastal ecosystems, in California and throughout the sea otters’ range around the Pacific Rim. Sea otters have long been recognized for their vital role in restoring and maintaining healthy kelp forests. Now we and research colleagues are learning that they’re doing the same in coastal wetlands.

In addition to our research program, we’re actively working to support policies that protect and restore coastal habitats that this iconic keystone species depends on for its recovery.

Sea otter mom and pup in Elkhorn Slough: Photo: Randy Wilder
Sea otter mom and pup in Elkhorn Slough: Photo: Randy Wilder

Along with conducting the annual population survey, USGS scientists annually update a database of sea otter strandings: the number of dead, sick or injured sea otters recovered along California’s coast. In 2014, scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, USGS, the aquarium and other institutions recovered or documented 386 stranded sea otters.

These data are shedding new light on sea otter population ecology along different parts of the coast. For example, a high proportion of sea otter carcasses recovered between Cayucos and Pismo Beach in recent years have white shark bite wounds – a potential explanation for the downward trend in sea otter numbers in that area.

“Before the early 2000s, we didn’t see very many shark-bitten otters south of Monterey,” says Mike Harris, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Shark bite cases now explain about 70 percent of the total strandings in this area.”

Sea otter research by governmental agencies in California is funded in part through voluntary contributions by taxpayers when they file state income tax returns. The fund was inspired by a legislator’s family visit to our sea otter exhibit in 2005. To date, it has generated more than $2.7 million for sea otter field studies and other recovery efforts.

Learn more about our sea otter work.

Read details about the 2015 population survey.

Photo of sea otter raft in Elkhorn Slough © Jane Vargas-Smith.

Sea otter insights: monitoring apex predators in Elkhorn Slough

Michelle Staedler stands atop a hill above Elkhorn Slough. It’s low tide – low enough to see the green eelgrass just under the surface of the water. Michelle peers through a spotting scope with a directional radio antenna attached. Static hums on the radio until it’s broken by a quiet blip…blip…blip coming from a radio tag inside the abdomen of a sea otter. Michelle records the time and notes that the otter she’s been watching for the last fifteen minutes, 501, has come up with a clam that she shares with her pup, floating by her side.

Michelle Staedler with the  Sea Otter Program at Monterey Bay Aquarium, monitors the behavior of sea otters in Elkhorn Slough. Photo by Cynthia McKelvey
Michelle Staedler with the Sea Otter Program at Monterey Bay Aquarium, monitors the behavior of sea otters in Elkhorn Slough. Photo by Cynthia McKelvey

Michelle is recording foraging data on Otter 501, perhaps the most famous sea otter in the  history of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s otter surrogacy program. Rescued as a pup by the Aquarium and raised in captivity, she was successfully released in 2011 into Elkhorn Slough, a major estuary system in Moss Landing that feeds into Monterey Bay. Otter 501 has gone on to raise several pups of her own in the slough, where many of her species have come to flourish.

Michelle and her collaborators at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve have been counting otters in the slough since September 2013 as part of a population monitoring project. She has conducted several research projects on sea otter behavior since she began working with the Aquarium nearly 30 years ago. Her work focuses on sea otter mothers, their pups and how they feed. Foraging data gathered in the slough has proven particularly useful to ecological research.

Crabs are a favorite prey item for sea otters in Elkhorn Slough. By eating the crabs, otters help restore the health of the slough ecosystem. (Photo by Ron Eby)
Crabs are a favorite prey item for sea otters in Elkhorn Slough. By eating the crabs, otters help restore the health of the slough ecosystem. (Photo by Ron Eby)

Sea otters are a keystone species – central to the overall health of ecosystems of which they’re a part. Like other top ocean predators, their presence helps maintain a diverse community of animals and plants. The web can unravel if otter numbers dwindle. That’s exactly what happened when they were hunted to near-extinction by fur traders in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In kelp forests, otters eat sea urchins and other grazing animals, keeping them from devouring the kelp. This allows the productive ecosystem to thrive.

Using several data sets, including Michelle’s extensive foraging data, researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz discovered that otters play an equally important role in the slough.

The sea slug Phyllaplysia taylori, also known as the "eelgrass sea hare," feeds on algae growing on the leaves of eelgrass. (Photo by Brent Hughes)
The sea slug Phyllaplysia taylori, also known as the “eelgrass sea hare,” feeds on algae growing on the leaves of eelgrass. (Photo by Brent Hughes)

As the story goes, before the otter population bounced back in the mid-1980s, eelgrass beds in the slough were being smothered by algae that grew unchecked on the leaves, absorbing the sunlight eelgrass needed for photosynthesis. In a healthy ecosystem, snails, slugs and other invertebrates would eat the film of algae, cleaning the grass and allowing it to get the sunlight it needs. But those grazers were being devoured by crabs, which had few natural predators in the slough – that is until sea otters turned up and began gobbling up the crabs.

Brent Hughes, who led the UC Santa Cruz research team, said he couldn’t have cinched his conclusion without the help of Michelle’s data.

“In the slough, we have unprecedented coverage of what a top predator is doing in terms of the ecology of a system, the behavior, exploitation of resources and habitat use,” Brent said. “It’s pretty much unprecedented in the marine ecology world, and that’s because of all the work that Michelle and [Brent’s collaborator] Tim Tinker have been doing.”

It’s important that she and her colleagues continue to monitor the otters, as well.

“We’re looking at the population of otters here,” Michelle explained. “How many are here, what areas of the slough they use, how they take advantage of micro habitats.”

For example, she said, a pioneer population of about 20 sea otters used to live around the jetty system in Moss Landing Harbor, at the mouth of the slough. Over time, their numbers ballooned to over 100 animals, and she’s observed them moving farther and farther up into the slough. Because of the significant restorative impact the otters can have on the ecosystem, it’s critical for researchers keep an eye on them to see what happens if their numbers continue to grow, Brent said.

– by Cynthia McKelvey

Reference:

Hughes B.B., Eby R., Van Dyke E., Tinker, M.T., Marks, C.I., Johnson, K.S., Wasson K. (2013). “Recovery of a top predator mediates negative eutrophic effects on seagrass.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110(38).   15313–15318, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1302805110

Sea otter raft photo © Jane Vargas-Smith

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