When it comes to marine mammals and the cuteness factor, the beloved sea otter is definitely up there at the top of the list. However, don't let their charming nature and adorable faces distract you from the fact that sea otters also play a very important role in the health of their local ecosystems. For the remaining populations around the world and the habitats in which they live, the conservation of this keystone species is critical and must remain a high priority if sea otters are to survive the many challenges facing them today.
Going back to the mid-1700s, the number of sea otters ranging from Japan to Mexico in the North Pacific Rim numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But due to the high global demand for their incredibly warm and fashionable pelts, known at the time as "soft gold," their numbers dropped to as few as 1,000 individuals and the species was on the brink of extinction. Those remaining sea otters only survived in the most rugged and inaccessible pockets throughout their range where hunters could not get to them.
With the species in total collapse, the International Fur Seal Treaty was signed in 1911 by the U.S., Russia, Japan, and Great Britain which outlawed the trade in sea otter fur. A bit later on, the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act in 1977 only helped to further their protections. Today, because of these protections and the work by conservationists around the world, sea otter populations have re-colonized 11 of their 13 original habitats, occupy about 75% of their historical range, and number more than 100,000 individuals. However, sea otters are still listed as an "endangered" species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List which is the world's most comprehensive inventory of the conservation status of plant and animal species.
There is one distinction to be made regarding sea otters and the IUCN Red List. Because a number of different sub-populations of sea otters are still isolated from one another, some of these populations are doing better than others which means that not every sub-population is "endangered," some still are only considered "threatened," but this relatively minor difference in status should not stop the continued efforts to bring them all back from the edge of extinction.
While the species no longer faces the widespread threat of commercial harvest, sea otters still face plenty of man-made perils including things like oil spills, water pollution from contaminated runoff, the bioaccumulation of toxins in their bodies, the overfishing of prey their species, the lack of suitable kelp forests, and harassment by humans still play a role in mortality.
Sea otters have very little body fat and rely solely on their fur for insulation and warmth. In fact, they have as many as one million hairs per square inch which trap air keeping otters warm. Anything that compromises the fur's ability to trap air can be a death sentence for an otter. When oil spills occur and the sea otter's fur is exposed, it becomes soaked with oil and clumps together which effectively halts its insulating ability and the otter can quickly develop life-threatening hypothermia. Sea otters will also try to feverishly clean this oil from their fur which exposes them to other toxic chemicals and can cause lasting internal damage and death.
Because sea otters are a nearshore species, they are susceptible to polluted run-off from towns and cities that border their habitat. When it rains and water flows from streets, parking lots, and landscaping into their environment it picks up oils, fertilizers, pesticides, and other contaminants along the way that can pose serious health risks to sea otters. Otters are a sentinel species which means they can serve as indicators to the overall health of the ocean in which they live. A number of otter die-offs in the past have alerted scientists to harmful events in the marine environment.
With the ban on commercial hunting, humans don't normally carry guns to target sea otters anymore, but reckless behavior and harassment by people while in their habitat can be equally as deadly. This is particularly true when it comes to females raising their pups. Motherhood is a very stressful time for sea otters females and in order to keep both themselves and their pups in the best possible health, they need to forage for up to ten hours a day. If a female is chased away from her pup or forced to dive because of human interference, it can be very taxing on precious energy reserves which may result in overexertion and vulnerability to infection and disease. It may even cause them to abandon their pups because they are unable to provide for them.
The rebound of sea otters in the Pacific Ocean is going in the right direction but the species is not out of the woods yet. That is why organizations like our partner, Monterey Bay Aquarium, are so important to the future of the species.
We are donating $25,000 to Monterey Bay Aquarium to support their work to protect and conserve southern sea otters. Our donation will help fund education, research, and outreach.
Monterey Bay Aquarium partners with state, federal, and academic researchers to study sea otters in the wild. Their Sea Otter Program has focused on the threatened southern sea otter population since 1984. Their goal is to better understand the challenges this population faces and promote its recovery.
Through the Sea Otter Program, Monterey Bay Aquarium rescues, treats, and releases injured sea otters. They also raise and release orphaned pups through their surrogacy program, seek homes for sea otters that can’t return to the wild, and conduct scientific research that advances conservation efforts.
By purchasing a 4ocean Sea Otter Bracelet, you'll remove one pound of trash from the ocean and coastlines while also helping to raise awareness about the importance of sea otter conservation. Get yours today!
Let us know in the comments below if you have ever seen a sea otter in the wild. What was that experience like?
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