Sea Otter Program Reports Troubling Numbers

Contact: Carol Singleton, Department of Fish and Game, (916) 539-6124

Southern sea otters recently passed two grim milestones, report wildlife officials, demonstrating that the threatened marine mammal is not faring well in California waters.

According to a preliminary summary, 2010 broke the record for the number of southern sea otter carcasses recovered in one year, with a total of 304. In addition, officials recently collected the 6,000th deceased sea otter as part of the 40-year collaborative program between California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

“The tireless work of the Southern Sea Otter Stranding Network has helped to bring awareness to the dire situation of the sea otter,” said Melissa Miller, wildlife veterinarian for DFG. “By conducting surveys, collecting carcasses and performing necropsies on a consistent and ongoing basis, we can better understand what is imperiling this important species and find solutions to help.”

Based on this year’s otter survey, the three-year running average count dropped to 2,711 animals. This year’s data represents a 3.6 percent decline from last year’s number of 2,813. This is the second year in a row that the three-year average has dropped, indicating that the southern sea otter population is in a period of decline.

Experts believe there are a variety of factors causing this decline including infectious disease, pollution, habitat degradation and shark attacks. Over the past decade the number of sea otters dying from fatal shark bites has greatly increased, with 2010 seeing a large spike. In addition, recent research found that sea otters are being poisoned by eating shellfish contaminated with toxins that flow into the ocean from freshwater algal blooms.

The Southern Sea Otter Stranding Network was implemented by DFG in 1968 and is currently overseen by the USGS with support from DFG. The purpose of this network is to verify all reports of stranded sea otters in California, and recover the carcasses whenever possible to determine the cause of death. The network is comprised of personnel from the USGS, DFG, Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Marine Mammal Center, California Academy of Sciences and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

You can support vital research and conservation programs for sea otters by contributing to the California Sea Otter Fund when you file your California Income Tax return.  The Sea Otter Fund is on Line 410 of Form 540.

For more information on the USGS sea otter survey results, visit http://www.werc.usgs.gov/outreach.aspx?RecordID=38.