Watching a gif of sea otters clapping always brightens my mood, regardless of how I am feeling or what day of the week it is. However, since embarking on this journey to learn more about my favorite marine mammal in the world, if not the universe, I have realized that I, among others, have been taking these majestic and lovable sea otters for granted. Unknowingly, of course, but to the point that our generation may have never known what sea otters are.
The Bad News
Sea otters were once coveted for more than their hand-holding abilities and small stature, but also for their luxurious fur. Noted as having the densest hair of all marine mammals, the sea otter’s coat attracted poachers to hunt these endearing creatures for large-scale commercialization. According to Sean Carroll’s article in Nautilus, the intensity of the hunting in the 18th and 19th century led to the drastic drop in population throughout the regions where otters lived, leaving an estimated 2,000 animals remaining from the original population of 150,000 to 300,000. Fortunately, by 1911, sea otters were granted protection under an international treaty which eliminated the commercial fur trade and any need for poachers, but was far from solving the dramatic population shortage that resulted from it.
The Good News
The sea otter population is returning. Although only at a fraction of what it once was, the otters are gradually re-populating areas around the California coast, Alaska, and some parts of Russia. This is due in part to the efforts by federal and local conservation groups to translocate sea otters to previously populated areas. Beginning in the 1960s, these efforts were successful in restoring sea otters to the west coast of North America. In addition, one of the greatest successes in marine conservation history has been the recovery of the sea otter and its subsequent growth around the world. Nevertheless, the status of the species is still a major concern.
The Status as of 2017
According to the IUCN Red List, sea otters are an endangered species and have been on the list since 2009 because of their history of sharp declines in population. Compared to the Bengal Tiger and Giant Panda, who are also on this list, sea otters have a fighting chance to move out of this list and toward a non-threatened species distinction. However, they will need as much support as possible. With friends at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, of the many marine life conservation groups, the sea otters can prevail and will!
Interested in learning more about their population growth? Click here for the latest report published in 2016.