In August of 2011, three Aquarium staff members participated in a Washington sea otter capture effort with partners from U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Monterey Bay Aquarium in a range-wide, three-year federal study of sea otter health and their nearshore environment titled “Coastal ecosystem responses to influences from land and sea.” This multinational, multiagency project is investigating sea otters as health indicators of coastal waters and marine resources spanning Alaska, Canada and south to California.
Participants temporarily caught and released sea otters for physical exams, biopsies and blood tests; observed sea otter feeding behavior; and collected samples from fish and other species that hold clues to ecological health. Says Seattle Aquarium Curator of Conservation Research Shawn Larson, “Sea otters, it turns out, are the perfect health indicators of our nearshore waters because they are dependent on nearshore marine habitats and, as top predators, are keystone species in kelp forest food webs.” She adds, “Some sea otter populations are abundant and stable, while others are either declining or struggling to reach healthy numbers. We are wondering if these differences can be explained by the otters themselves, ocean influences, or by human impacts to the nearshore environment.”
Since the captures, in the spring of 2012 and 2013, the Seattle Aquarium has hosted two meetings to discuss progress on this multidisciplinary project. The meetings were attended by biologists, ecologists, veterinarians, geologists and statisticians trying to determine the key ecosystem or biological variables to healthy sea otter populations. Now the project is nearly completed with all field data and samples collected; the data from each project component analyzed; and a final project result anticipated at the next meeting in early 2014.
Learn more about sea otters during the Aquarium’s second Sea Otter Awareness Weekend, September 28–29!