Tag Archives: sea otters

Sea Otter Survey Encouraging, but Comes Up Short of the “Perfect Story”

The southern sea otter, Enhydra lutris nereis, continues its climb toward recovery, according to the annual count released by the U.S. Geological Survey and partners today. For the first time, southern sea otters’ numbers have exceeded the threshold required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider de-listing the species as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The annual count will need to surpass this threshold for the next two years for USFWS to review the otters’ listed status. However, localized population declines at the northern and southern ends of the range continue to be a cause for concern among resource management officials.

This year’s survey results suggest an increasing trend over the last five years of more than 3 percent per year. The population index, a statistical representation of the entire population calculated as the three-year running average of census counts, has climbed to 3,272, up from 2,939 in 2013. The growth is accounted for by an unexpected jump in numbers in the center of the sea otter’s range, an area that spans the Californian coast from Monterey south to Cambria.

“We believe the high count this year is partly explained by excellent viewing conditions, but it also appears to reflect increased food availability in the range center,” says Dr. Tim Tinker, a research ecologist who leads the USGS sea otter research program. “The boom in sea urchin abundance throughout northern and central California has provided a prey bonanza for sea otters, and that means more pups and juveniles are surviving to adulthood.”

While the overall population index continues to trend upward, the northern and southern subsets of the population continue a negative five-year decline, dropping 2.5 percent and 0.6 percent per year. “We are still seeing large numbers of stranded otters near the range peripheries, a high percentage of which have lethal shark bite wounds,” says Mike Harris, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “These deaths may explain the lack of population growth in those areas.”

Declines at the range ends have implications for the long term outlook for sea otter recovery. “Negative population trends at the edges of the range are probably responsible for the lack of range expansion over the last decade,” explained Tinker. “These are the portions of the population that typically fuel the colonization of new habitats.”

In addition to the sea otter population along the mainland coast, the USGS also surveys the distinct population at San Nicolas Island in the southern California Bight. This population, established by translocation in the late 1980s, struggled at low numbers through the 1990s, but over the last decade has been growing rapidly with a mean growth rate of 13 percent per year. “The sea otters at San Nicolas Island continue to thrive, and some may eventually emigrate to and colonize other Channel Islands in southern California,” says Brian Hatfield, the USGS biologist who coordinates the annual census.

Since the 1980s, USGS scientists have computed the annual population index and evaluated trends in the southern sea otter. For sea otters to be considered for removal from threatened species listing under the Endangered Species Act, the population index would have to exceed 3,090 for three consecutive years, according to the threshold established under the Southern Sea Otter Recovery Plan by the USFWS. To reach the optimum sustainable population level under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is the number of animals that will result in the maximum productivity of the population while considering carrying capacity and ecosystem health, the southern sea otter population would likely have to reach as many as 8,400 animals in California.

“The population index has exceeded 3,090 for the first time, and that’s encouraging,” said Lilian Carswell, Southern Sea Otter Recovery Coordinator for USFWS, “but sustained population growth will require range expansion, which means that sea otters will somehow have to get past the shark gauntlets near the ends of the current range. Over the longer term, it’s not just sea otter numbers we’re after, but the restoration of ecological relationships in the ecosystems where sea otters and other nearshore species coevolved.”

The sea otter survey and stranding programs are just one part of a larger research program investigating sea otters and their role as predators in coastal ecosystems. In Elkhorn Slough, located between Santa Cruz and Monterey, a recent study suggests that sea otters’ appetite for crabs can improve the health of seagrass beds, and USGS scientists are collaborating with biologists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, University of California, Santa Cruz and CDFW to study the population in this unique habitat. A new study from UCSC, USGS and the Monterey Bay Aquarium is investigating how sea otters near Monterey are responding to the increase in sea urchins, which may be in part a result of loss of predatory sea stars from wasting disease. The scientists are studying whether sea otters play a key role in preventing urchins from over-grazing kelp forests in the absence of sea stars.

Survey Methodology

  • The annual population index is calculated from visual surveys conducted via telescope observations from shore and via low-flying aircraft along the California coastline by researchers, students, and volunteers from USGS, CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, Monterey Bay Aquarium, UCSC, USFWS and U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
  • This year, the surveyed coastline spanned from Pillar Point in San Mateo County, south to Rincon Point near the Santa Barbara/Ventura County line, and also included San Nicolas Island.

Sea Otter Facts

  • Sea otters were presumed extinct in California after the fur trade years, but were rediscovered in the 1930s, when about 50 animals were documented persisting near Bixby Creek north of Big Sur.
  • Sea otters are considered a keystone species of rocky sub-tidal ecosystems because they prey on sea urchins that, if left unchecked, can decimate kelp beds.
  • Scientists also study sea otters as an indicator of nearshore ecosystem health, since sea otters feed and live near the coast and often are the first predators exposed to pollutants and pathogens washed down from coastlands, such as the microbial toxin microcystin.
  • The public can report sightings of stranded sea otters to institutions listed on this webpage.

More detailed survey results and maps are available in the full report “Spring 2016 California Sea Otter Census Results,” which is available online.

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Media Contacts:
Tim Tinker, USGS, (831) 254-9748
Suzanna Soileau, USGS, (406) 994-7257
Ashley Spratt, USFWS, (805) 320-6225
Dana Michaels, CDFW, (916) 322-2420

Fusilamientos de nutrias marinas en el condado de Santa Cruz

Funcionarios del U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service y del California Department of Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement Solicitan Información para Ayudar en la Investigación

El U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) y el California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) solicitan información que lleve a la detención y convicción de la(s) persona(s) responsible(s) por las muertes por fusilamiento de tres nutrias marinas sureñas al final de julio o a principios de agosto.  Se ofrece una recompensa de la menos $10,000 por esta información.

Los tres nutrias marinas machas se hallaron muertas, dos aproximando la madurez y una ya adulta, en el trayecto entre el puerto de Santa Cruz y Seacliffe State Beach en Aptos entre las fechas del 12 al 19 de agosto.  Las nutrias marinas sureñas son protegidas como una especie en peligro de extinción conforme al Endangered Species Act federal.  Se las protege también por el Marine Mammal Protection Act y la ley estatal de California.  Matar una nutria marina sureña se penaliza por una multa de hasta $100,000 y posible condenación a la cárcel.

Los resultados de la necropsia inicial indican que las nutrias marinas recibieron heridas de balas y murieron entre varios días a varias semanas antes de que llegaran arrastradas a la orilla.  El Laboratorio Forense del U.S. Fish and Wildlife dirige unas pesquisas exhaustivas para ayudar en la investigación.

Persona con información en relación con éstos u otros fusilamientos de nutrias marinas debería contactarse con el California Department of Fish and Wildlife por la línea de CalTIP en 1-888-334-2258 (las comunicaciones pueden ser por anonimato) o con el agente especial del U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service al 1-650-876-9078.

Al encontrar una nutria marina muerta en el condado de Santa Cruz, se debería dejarla sin mover, tomar una foto si le sea posible, y denunciarlo de inmediato al CDFW en el 1-831-212-7010.

Las nutrias marinas sureñas, también conocidas como nutrias marinas californianas, se registraron como amenazadas en 1977.  Las nutrias marinas sureñas aparecían en tiempos anteriores en zonas que sobrepasaban los límites de California, sin embargo actualmente se extiende su hábitat entre el condado de San Mateo al norte y el condado de Santa Bárbara al sur con una pequeña agrupación alrededor de la isla de San Nicolás en el condado de Ventura.

El Acuario de Monterey, el California Department of Fish and Wildlife y un donante particular aportaron fondos para la recompensa.

Los objetivos del U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service se constan de elaborar junto con otros la conservación, la protección y el mejoramiento de los peces, la vida silvestre, las plantas y sus hábitats para el beneficio continuo del pueblo de Estados Unidos.  Formamos los líderes y socios confiados en la conservación de los peces y la fauna, reconocidos por la excelencia científica, fideicomiso de la tierra y los recursos naturales, profesionalismo dedicado y compromiso con el servicio al público.  Para más información sobre nuestro encargo y el personal que lo realice, visite www.fws.gov.  

 Los objetivos del California Department of Fish and Wildlife se constan de administrar los diversos recursos de peces, vida silvestre y plantas, y el hábitat del que ellos dependen, para sus valores ecológicos y su disfrute por el público.  Para más información, visite www.wildlife.ca.gov.

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Contactos mediáticos: 
Ashley Spratt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Ashley_spratt@fws.gov, 805-644-1766 ext. 369

Max Schad, California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Max.schad@wildlife.ca.gov, 408-210-5718

Imágenes de nutrias marinas sureñas disponibles para los medios:  https://flic.kr/s/aHsjDh2fwN

Sea Otter Shootings in Santa Cruz County

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement Officials Seek Information to Aid in Investigation

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) are looking for information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for the shooting deaths of three southern sea otters in late July or early August. A reward of at least $10,000 is being offered for this information.

The three male sea otters, two sub-adults and one adult, were found dead between the Santa Cruz Harbor and Seacliff State Beach in Aptos, between August 12 and 19.  Southern sea otters are protected as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. They are also protected under Marine Mammal Protection Act and by California state law.  Killing a southern sea otter is punishable by up to $100,000.00 in fines and a possible jail sentence.

Initial necropsy results indicate the otters sustained gunshot wounds and died several days to several weeks prior to washing ashore. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory is conducting a thorough examination to aid in the investigation.

Anyone with information about these or any sea otter shootings should contact the CalTIP line at 1-888-334-2258 (callers may remain anonymous) or the Special Agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 650-876-9078.

Anyone who finds a dead sea otter in Santa Cruz County should leave it in place, take a photo if possible, and report it immediately to CDFW at 831-212-7010.

Southern sea otters, also known as California sea otters, were listed as threatened in 1977. Southern sea otters once occurred in areas well outside of California, but currently range from San Mateo County in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south, with a small subpopulation around San Nicolas Island in Ventura County.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, CDFW, and a private donor are contributing to the reward.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.

 The mission of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is to   manage California’s diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public. For more information, visit www.wildlife.ca.gov.

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Media Contacts:
Ashley Spratt, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Ashley_spratt@fws.gov, 805-644-1766 ext. 369
Max Schad, California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Max.schad@wildlife.ca.gov, 408-210-5718

Southern sea otter images available for media: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjDh2fwN

There’s a Place for Wildlife on Your Tax Return

The deadline to file income tax returns is approaching. If you’re still working on yours, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) reminds you that you can help save endangered plants and animals on your state return. Near the end of form 540, look for the section called Voluntary Contributions. There, you can donate any dollar amount to the California Sea Otter Fund on line 410 or the Rare and Endangered Species Preservation Program on line 403.

The Southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and “fully protected” by the State of California. It is illegal to harass, pursue, hunt, catch, capture or kill, or attempt any of those actions on such listed species.

Donations to the California Sea Otter Fund are split between CDFW and the State Coastal Conservancy. CDFW’s half supports scientific research on the causes of mortality in sea otters, including a large analysis of 15 years of sea otter mortality data with critical support from the California Sea Otter Fund. CDFW scientists and their partners have also initiated a multi-agency outreach program called “Sea Otter Savvy” to educate coastal boaters, kayakers and the public about the impact of repeated human disturbance on sea otter health and survival. More information can be found at www.facebook.com/seaottersavvy.

The annual sea otter survey conducted in 2015 indicated that the population in California may be slowly increasing, to just over 3,000 animals. That is a small fraction of their historic numbers and this population is still vulnerable to oil spills, environmental pollution, predation by white sharks and other threats. You can help spread the word by liking and sharing the Sea Otter Fund Facebook page.

Since 1983, California taxpayers have voluntarily supported the Rare and Endangered Species Preservation Program by donating more than $21 million. That money has provided critical support for many state-listed species, including Butte County meadowfoam (Limnanthes floccose ssp. californica), Pacific fisher (Pekania pennanti), Shoshone pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis Shoshone), Scripps’s murrelet (Synthliboramphus scrippsi), Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog (Rana sierrae), and many-flowered navarretia (Navarretia leucocephala ssp. plieantha).

“From Death Valley National Park to North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, many parts of California are exploding with amazing wildflower displays right now, but California’s native plants don’t usually get as much attention as animals,” said Jeb Bjerke, an environmental scientist with CDFW’s Native Plant Program. “Although many people think of California’s endangered species as animals, there are about twice as many listed plants. In addition, more than 1,000 plant species in California are rare but not listed. Our botanical diversity is astounding, and we are trying to protect that heritage from extinction.”

Voluntary contributions also help CDFW acquire federal matching funds, increasing the positive actions that can be done for rare, threatened and endangered species and the ecosystems that support them. Support from California taxpayers has enabled wildlife biologists to achieve important recovery milestones to conserve vulnerable species. Past contributors can take credit for helping the Peregrine falcon and California brown pelican enough to be removed from endangered species lists.

If someone else prepares your state tax return, please let him or her know you want to donate to the Rare and Endangered Species Preservation Program on line 403 or the California Sea Otter Fund on line 410. If you use Turbo Tax, when you’re near the end of your tax return it should ask if you want to make a voluntary contribution to a special fund. Click “Yes” and go to lines 403 and 410.

What you donate this year is tax deductible on next year’s return. More information on both the California Sea Otter Fund and the Rare and Endangered Species Preservation tax donation program is available on our Tax Donation webpage.

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Media Contacts:
Laird Henkel, Sea Otter Program, (831) 469-1726
Jeb Bjerke, Habitat Conservation Planning Branch (plants), (916) 651-6594
Esther Burkett, Nongame Wildlife Program, (916) 531-1594
Dana Michaels, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-2420

Elkhorn Slough OtterCam Goes High Definition

The Elkhorn Slough OtterCam has been upgraded from standard to high-definition, and there is now a second HD video camera focused on sea otters, thanks to the generous support of the Acacia Foundation and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Now anyone can watch California’s adorable sea otters in HD by going to www.elkhornslough.org/ottercam.

Located in areas of the Elkhorn Slough Reserve’s salt marshes where sea otters often congregate, the two new cameras offer great image clarity and fine detail for viewing this iconic Monterey Bay marine mammal and a teeming cast of other Elkhorn Slough wildlife. Elkhorn Slough Ecological Reserve is managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).

The Elkhorn Slough OtterCam HD video streams will be featured as part of the PBS/BBC Big Blue Live television and online event, Aug. 31 through Sept. 2 (at www.pbs.org/big-blue-live/live-cams/elkhorn-slough-otter-cam). Anchored from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the three-day, live televised event will highlight the amazing marine life that converges off California’s central coast. The Big Blue Live website links to live cameras, including the Elkhorn Slough OtterCam.

Elkhorn Slough is home to the largest concentration of endangered southern sea otters (enhydra lutris nereis) on the California coast, and the first webcam dedicated to streaming live video of wild southern sea otters in their natural habitat. The Elkhorn Slough OtterCam has been streaming live video online from the tidal salt marshes of the Elkhorn Slough Reserve since 2012. The upgrade to high-definition enhances the OtterCam for both researchers and visitors.

For almost two years, researchers have used the Elkhorn Slough OtterCam to observe sea otter behavior such as foraging, grooming and raising pups. Stationed on the edge of the slough, the camera looks across pickleweed marsh and tidal channels of the slough. These channels are frequented largely by female otters and appear to be used as a nursery, as sea otters with pups are regularly seen in the meandering channels. During the past three years, the camera has provided video and still photographs documenting the growth of otter pups, interactions with harbor seals and other wildlife, and the movement of otters throughout the slough.

“The OtterCam has opened a unique window on the lives of sea otters. There are times we are seeing 25 or more otters in the protected channels of the slough’s marsh,” Elkhorn Slough Foundation (ESF) Executive Director Mark Silberstein said. “This suggests there may be more otters residing in the slough than previously thought. We’ve witnessed some unique behaviors, such as hauling out of the water, resting and grooming in the pickleweed marshes.”

Research is underway to better understand how sea otters are using the estuary, with the hope of helping southern sea otters recover in other parts of their historic range. In turn, recent evidence suggests that sea otters may yield important ecological benefits to the estuaries they inhabit. A study published by reserve researcher Brent Hughes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that sea otters enhance the health of subtidal seagrass beds, as they do in kelp forests.

“We are pleased to present these remarkable images from the Elkhorn Slough Reserve, and shine a light on sea otter use of the estuary,” Reserve Manager Dave Feliz said. “The behavior of these animals in a salt marsh is little understood, yet the story is unfolding before the eyes of the world on ElkhornSlough.org. CDFW is happy to be a part of this new chapter in sea otter life history.”

Elkhorn Slough, in the central Monterey Bay area, encompasses a wide variety of habitats – oak woodlands, maritime chaparral, coastal prairie and the largest tract of tidal salt marsh in California south of San Francisco Bay – that support an incredible abundance and diversity of life. Elkhorn Slough hosts 550 species of marine invertebrates and 100 species of fish, as well as resident sea lions, harbor seals and the highest concentration of southern sea otters on the West Coast. On the Pacific flyway, Elkhorn Slough bird numbers can soar during migration seasons, nearly doubling the resident bird counts. The slough is designated a Globally Important Bird area, with more than 340 species identified in and around the slough.

ESF is a community-supported non-profit land trust whose mission is to conserve and restore the Elkhorn Slough and its watershed. ESF protects 4,000 acres of rare habitat including oak woodlands, maritime chaparral and wetlands. Since 1982, ESF has been the non-profit partner of the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR).

ESNERR is managed by CDFW with administrative assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. ESNERR is one of 28 reserves established nationwide to support long-term research, water-quality monitoring, environmental education and coastal stewardship.

For information about ESF and ESNERR, and to support the conservation of Elkhorn Slough, please visit ElkhornSlough.org and CDFW Elkhorn Slough.

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Media Contacts:
Dave Feliz, CDFW Elkhorn Slough Reserve, (831) 728-2822
Scott Nichols, Elkhorn Slough Foundation, (831) 728-5939
Dana Michaels, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-2420