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Slow Decline of the Sea Otters

August 22, 2002

The sea otter population has dropped 12.2 percent since 1997, and dropped in 2001 to 2161 from 2317 in 2000 - a 6.7 percent decline in one year.

Today the sea otter is an endangered species and a "fully protected mammal" under California law. They are also protected under Canadian and Russian laws.

Much of the research on the sea otter has been done since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

There are estimated to be a few thousand, sea otters in Alaska and the Aleutians, a few dozen in California.

This is down from 300,000 worldwide before the eighteenth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they were hunted for their fur. The sea otter lacks the blubber that keeps whales, seals, and other marine animals warm, but possesses the thickest fur of any mammal, up to a million hairs per square inch.

The sea otter survey encompasses San Francisco to Santa Barbara. The cause of the decline is being argued among the scientists; it could be caused by over-fishing or a slight rise in water temperature.

A group of scientists believe that the whale's usual prey, the Stellar sea lions and harbor seals, is so diminished that they're resorting to feeding on otters and that this is the main reason for the otters' decline in numbers, but this is debatable.

James Estes of the US Geological Survey believes that the otters are too fat and healthy to be suffering from food shortages and no signs of an epidemic or widespread contaminant have been found.

Researchers have observed that otter populations dropped in a whale-accessible area but did not in a bay that the whales couldn't reach.

It wouldn't take many whales to devastate the otter population because it is possible that a single whale could consume 1,825 otters per year.

Greg Saunders, U.S. Fish & Wildlike Service coordinator for the sea otter says "The three year average of survey results indicates that the sea otter population is more or less stable. However, the numbers fall short of our recovery goals for the species."

***************

Resources:
BioScience Online
Chang, Maria L., Scholastic Science World, Feb 22 99
Cohn, Jeffrey P., March 1998
Estes, James, US Geological Survey, 2001
Hay, Mark E., Ecologist, University of North Carolina, 1998

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