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Sea otters are crucial indicators of the health of our nearshore waters and coastal resources, from kelp forests to fisheries. What clues does the sea otter's decline hold for our knowledge of ecosystem and global change? U.S. and Canadian researchers have teamed together to  investigate.

  • The Investigation
    Explore the scene and hunt for clues in sea otters and the nearshore ecosystem
  • A Team Effort
    Meet the investigators and partners and see where they work
  • For Policymakers
    Retrieve memos and contacts explaining project implications for your region
  • For Media
    Download press kits and multimedia packages
  • For Scientists/Managers
    Look up detailed study plans, publications and briefings generated by project scientists
Map of the Pacific Nearshore Project study sites --Photographer: James Bodkin, USGS


If you've already explored our search for clues in sea ottersthe food web and the landscape, you probably get the sense that project scientists are trying to investigate every possible facet of sea otter biology and the Pacific nearshore ecosystem to understand and measure their health.

Project scientists are hunting for all these different clues -- whether it's sea otter whiskers or black rockfish otoliths -- in six different regions along the Pacific coastline of North America. Nine distinct populations of sea otters which live in those regions are being studied. Two belonging to the southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereris), the subspecies which lives in California, and seven belonging to the northern sea otter (Enhydra lutris kenyoni), the subspecies which lives in Washington, British Columbia and Alaska.

Three of these southern and northern populations are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act as threatened with extinction.

To gather these clues, project scientists must travel to each scene of investigation. Since 2008, the project partners have joined on expeditions to each of these six regions -- be it the arctic waters off the Katmai coast of Alaska, the majestic coastline of the Olympic Peninsula or the sun-soaked shores of Monterey Bay. Some expeditions require sailing at sea for three weeks away from family and home comforts, while others require tedious hours of telescope observations ashore while battling the bitter cold or being watchful of dangerous bears.

Wherever they are, project scientists are hard at work. At sea, teams of highly trained veterinarians, divers and students work together to safely capture wild sea otters in rolling seas and tangling kelp, and work efficiently and quickly to examine their health and gather valuable samples. In laboratories, biologists squint into microscopes to photograph tiny fish otoliths the size of rice grains and count their age rings, or operate complex laser equipment and chemical analysis to unlock the stable isotopes within tissues samples carefully collected by their expedition colleagues. Elsewhere in research offices, GIS experts spend countless hours creating and refining computer models that translate satellite images into useful data and analyze for productivity and land use trends, while statisticians analyze all of the data collected -- from sea otters to land uses -- and take on the daunting task of explaining the patterns and connections within the clues. 

As the Pacific Nearshore Project enters the second decade of the 21st Century, project scientists will conclude their field expeditions and focus on evaluating all the clues they've gathered. They'll continue to collaborate as a team and report what new discoveries and connections they've made each step along the way.

But solving the complex mystery of our Pacific nearshore ecosystem and our sea otters requires an understanding of our natural world by everyone -- from the project scientists to our policymakers to you, the public. 

Now that you've explored the clues and scenes of this mystery and the science behind them, you'll know exactly how each new discovery and announcement will fit into the investigation. Together, we will learn more about the nearshore waters that we all appreciate and enjoy, and how to solve the challenges that it faces.

Stay tuned.

Explore the clues again, or meet the research team:

Jump to Clues from Sea Otters --Photographer: Tania Larson, USGS Jump to Clues from the Food Web --Photographer: Steve Lonhart, NOAA Jump to Clues from the Landscape --Photographer: Ben Young Landis, USGS Jump to Piecing Together the Clues

Updated 2011.05.12

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