USGS Western Ecological Research Center

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How are sea otters using estuarine habitats and prey resources? Researchers are seeking to understand their role in the estuarine food web and to quantify and understand the effects of human-caused stressors — such as contaminants or nutrient inputs — on sea otters in Elkhorn Slough, California.

A sea otter at Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, near Moss Landing, Calif. --Photographer: Robert Scoles/ESNERR/NOAA

As part of a new project in Elkhorn Slough near Moss Landing, California, scientists hope to compile new data to support the recovery of the southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis), a federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

This partnership of federal, state and local institutions is seeking to increase our understanding of estuary habitat use by sea otters — and to help inform the conservation and restoration of suitable habitat and water quality conditions at Elkhorn Slough.

As southern sea otters continue their recovery and expansion into southern and northern reaches of the California coast, they will encounter estuary habitats. But scientists are really not sure how sea otters will respond and thrive in estuary environments, and how their recovery will affect estuary food webs.

For the time being, Elkhorn Slough is our best example in California of sea otters using estuarine habitats — which have different environmental factors than say, kelp forests and other habitats along the coast.

So using a variety of established study methods — radio tracking, veterinary exams, genetic analysis, diet observations — this collaborative group of scientists hopes to uncover new knowledge about this population of California’s iconic sea otters — a population that hasn’t been extensively studied for 15 years.

The research is being led by a partnership of the U.S. Geological Survey, University of California-Santa Cruz, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR), with assistance from other partners.

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