MONTEREY BAY, Calif. – This week, conservation groups are celebrating Sea Otter Awareness Week with online and in-person events across the state.
Historically, the Pacific Rim supported between 150,000 and 300,000 sea otters, but the population is now estimated at about 106,000.
Andrew Johnson, California representative with the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, said 16,000 endangered southern sea otters once roamed the California coast. Now, only about 3,000 animals are left, mostly between Santa Barbara and San Francisco.
“But they’re still struggling,” said Johnson. “Their numbers are stagnant. They aren’t expanding their range north or south, and haven’t for the last two decades.”
Great white sharks are a threat to the sea otter. But Johnson said human activity does more harm, especially the pollutants and agricultural runoff that end up in the ocean.
You can check out the list of sea otter events this week online, at ‘Defenders.org.’
Sea otters were all but wiped out from Northern California waters during the fur trade of the 1800 and 1900s.
Johnson said sea otters are a keystone species – without them, the ecosytem is thrown out of balance. And climate change is warming the ocean, exacerbating the problem.
“Over the last seven or eight years with the warming ocean waters, the so-called ‘blob’ along the West coast,” said Johnson, “sea star die offs, urchin overgrowth, overgrazing on kelp – the system along our shoreline in California is in a rough spot.”
Conservation groups are hoping to expand a successful program pioneered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where biologists rescued abandoned or orphaned sea otter pups, raised them with a surrogate mother, and released them into Elkhorn Slough.
In the future they hope to jumpstart new colonies in Northern California.