USGS Western Ecological Research Center

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WERC Research Profile: Sea Otter Ecology and Population Trends

Released: 2011
WERC Outreach Factsheet: Sea Otter Ecology and Population Trends. Updated May 2013.

Adored by many — yet despised by others — there is no  doubt that sea otters captivate the public. 

But sea otters can serve as indicators of the health of our nearshore waters and coastal resources. Sea otters live their entire lives within nearshore waters, dependent on its kelp forests and other habitats for food and shelter and rarely straying into the open sea. This dependence also means that a sea otter is constantly exposed to whatever contamination or stressors are in its local environment — pollutants flushed downstream from inland waters, or a food web disrupted by altered oceanic trends.

Moreover, sea otters are a keystone species for the nearshore Pacific Coast. Absence of sea otters can lead to major changes in the local ecoystem — a rippling influence on many levels of the food web, from kelp forests to commercial fisheries.

Sea otters have been protected from hunting since the fur trade bans a century ago. While some populations are now abundant and stable, others are either declining or struggling to reach healthy numbers. Can these differences be explained by oceanic influences, or by human impacts to adjacent landscapes? What do these trends say about the quality of the sea otters’ marine habitat — the same habitat which supports our 
fisheries and our recreational waters? 

The need to understand sea otter ecology continues. Scientists at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center (WERC) are helping to lead the research, with studies spanning Alaska to California on both the southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) and northern sea otter (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) subspecies.

WERC scientists are harnessing collaborative partnerships within USGS and with local, state, federal and international partners, along with cutting-edge laboratory analyses and detailed, long-term field observations — all towards providing science on this important marine species.

Screenshot of the WERC sea otter research factsheet --Photographer: USGS

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This product is associated with the following projects:
California Sea Otter Surveys and Research

Pacific Nearshore Project

California Sea Otter Stranding Network

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