|Scientific Name:||Enhydra lutris|
|Species Authority:||(Linnaeus, 1758)|
|Taxonomic Notes:||Three regional subspecies have been confirmed by Cronin et al. (1996); Enhydra lutris lutris (Linnaeus, 1758) from the Asian range of the Kuril Islands southeast to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Commander Islands, E. l. kenyoni from the Aleutian Islands to Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA, along the Pacific coast of Canada and into Oregon state in the continental USA, and E. l. nereis (Merriam, 1904) from central California, USA.|
|Red List Category & Criteria:||Endangered A2abe ver 3.1|
|Assessor(s):||Doroff, A. & Burdin, A.|
|Reviewer(s):||Hussain, S.A. & Conroy, J.|
The Sea Otter is considered to be Endangered due its vulnerability to large-scale population declines. The species is believed to have undergone a decline exceeding 50% over the past 30 years (approximately three generations). The world-wide population of Sea Otters decreased to approximately 2,000 animals by the end of the commercial fur trade in 1911 (Kenyon 1969). The population recovered from 11 remnant populations located in Russia (Bering Island, Kamchatka Peninsula, and Kuril Islands) and in the United States (in Alaska (Aleutian Islands, Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak archipelago, and Prince William Sound) and California). The remnant populations were small and widely dispersed, as a result, this species has low genetic diversity (Ralls et al. 1983). Since the 1980s, the species had been recovering in many areas thanks to intensive management and regulatory efforts by several governments. However contemporary issues (oil spills, potential fisheries interactions, predation, and disease events), have either prevented Sea Otter populations from thriving or have caused population declines throughout much of the species range. In the United States, two subspecies of Sea Otters are listed as threatened (E. lutris kenyoni in SW Alaska and E. lutris nereis in California) due to precipitous population declines in Alaska and slow growth (and vulnerability to anthropogenic factors) of a small population in California.
In Alaska, precipitous population declines occurred in the Aleutian Islands beginning in the late 1980s–2005. By 2000, counts of Sea Otters had decreased by 90% with a declining trend through 2005 (Doroff et al. 2003, Estes et al. 2005, Burn et al. 2003). The probable cause of the decline was increased predation by killer whales (Orcinus orca) (Estes et al. 1998). More recent Sea Otters surveys indicate the population trend has increased since 2005, however, counts remain well below carrying capacity for this region (D.M. Burn pers. comm. 2010). Population counts also remain low for the Alaska Peninsula (Burn and Doroff 2005, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Stock Assessment Reports). The population in the Kodiak archipelago and lower Cook Inlet appeared stable or increasing during the same period that population declines were documented in the Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula (Kodiak and lower Cook Inlet are part of the Southwest population stock), however, this habitat has not been surveyed since 2004.
Recent studies have found infectious disease to be an important mortality factor in California Sea Otter populations (Conrad et al. 2005, Johnson et al. 2009). Information collected from forensic-level necropsies of dead Sea Otters and sampling of free-ranging Sea Otters indicate a strong link to protozoan parasites, Toxoplasma gondii and Sacrocystis neurona, that are known to breed in cats and opossums (Thomas and Cole 1996, Conrad et al. 2005) thus sources of mortality for the Sea Otter population include land-based factors. Other factors identified as causing significant mortality include acanthocephalan peritonitis, protozoal encephalitis, bacterial and fungal infections (Thomas and Cole 1996).
The situation in the Russian Federation is clearer now. The Sea Otter number on the Commander Islands reached maximum since last 150 years period (A. Burdin and S.V. Zagrebelny pers. comm. 2006). In 2007, the direct count revealed around 8,000 otters in both Bering and Medny Islands. The Commanders Island population of Sea Otter was never so abundant, but in 2008, it was found that the population was on decline. In 2004 the Kuril Islands population of Sea Otter was estimated around 19,000 (Kornev and Korneva 2004), but later count have shown sever decline (up to 40–50% in different locations). Though the causes of such decline are not very clear, the threat due to poaching can’t be ruled out.
Historically, Sea Otters occurred across the North Pacific Rim, ranging from Hokkaido, Japan, through the Kuril Islands, the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Commander Islands, the Aleutian Islands, peninsular and south coastal Alaska and south to Baja California, Mexico (Kenyon 1969). In the early 1700s, the worldwide population was estimated to be between 150,000 (Kenyon 1969) and 300,000 individuals (Johnson 1982). Although it appears that harvests periodically led to local reductions of Sea Otters (Simenstad et al. 1978), the species remained abundant throughout its range until the mid-1700s. Following the arrival in Alaska of Russian explorers in 1741, extensive commercial harvest of Sea Otters over the next 150 years resulted in the near extirpation of the species. When Sea Otters were afforded protection by the International Fur Seal Treaty in 1911, probably fewer than 2,000 animals remained in 13 remnant colonies (Kenyon 1969). Remnant populations were located in the Kuril Islands, Kamchatka and in the Commander Islands Russia; five in Southwestern Alaska (the Aleutian Islands, Alaska Peninsula, and Kodiak Island), and one remnant population in each of the following regions; Southcentral Alaska (Prince William Sound), Canada (Queen Charlotte Islands), central California, and Mexico (San Benito Islands) (Estes 1980). However, the Queen Charlotte, Canada and San Benito Island, Mexico remnant Sea Otter populations have presumably died out and likely did not contribute to the recolonization of the species following near extirpation (Kenyon 1969).
In north America, the Sea Ottes range is fairly continuous from the Aleutian Islands to Prince William Sound with population gaps along the Gulf of Alaska until Yakutat (which was a translocated population) with another gap in the population’s distribution until the outer islands of Southeast Alaska (also a translocated population form the Aleutian Islands and Prince William Sound). The next gap in the Sea Otter population distribution is between Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, Canada. Translocation efforts were successful in Washington State but not in Oregon thus there is a large population gap between the small Sea Otter population in Washington and that of central California.
Native:Canada; Japan; Mexico; Russian Federation; United States
|Range Map:||Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.|
The Sea Otter population thought to have once been 150,000 to 300,000, occurring along the North Pacific from northern Japan to the central Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Its abundance was greatly reduced by human exploitation. Between 1751 and 1911 the distribution was reduced to 13 known remnant populations: two in the Kuril Islands and Kamchatka; one in the Commander Islands; a total of 10 in the following areas: Aleutian Islands (2)and along the Alaska Peninsula (3); Kodiak Island (1), Prince William Sound (1), the Queen Charlotte Islands (1), central California (1), and San Benito Islands (1). However, the Queen Charlotte, Canada and San Benito Island, Mexico remnant Sea Otter populations have died out and likely did not contribute to the recolonization of the species following near extirpation (Kenyon 1969).
|Habitat and Ecology:||
Throughout their range, Sea Otters use a variety of near shore marine environments and 84% of foraging occurs in water ≤ 30m in depth (Bodkin et al. 2004) and throughout much of their range, foraging occurs within a kilometer of the shore. Their classic association is with rocky substrates supporting kelp beds, but they also frequent soft-sediment areas where kelp is absent (Riedman and Estes 1990, DeMaster et al. 1996, Burn and Doroff 2005). Kelp canopy is an important habitat component, used for foraging and resting (Riedman and Estes 1990). They are found most often in areas with protection from the most severe ocean winds, such as rocky coastlines, thick kelp forests, and barrier reefs. Although they are most strongly associated with rocky substrates, Sea Otters can also live in areas where the sea floor consists primarily of mud, sand, or silt. Individuals generally occupy a home range a few kilometers long, and remain there year-round. Sea Otters forage in rocky and soft-sediment communities on or near the ocean floor. The maximum confirmed depth of dive was 97 m (Newby 1975); however recent studies using time-depth recorders implanted in Sea Otters indicate average maximum forage depths of 54 m for female and 82m for male Sea Otters (Bodkin et al. 2004).
|Use and Trade:||
Europeans and Americans first ventured to the North Pacific coast of America in the late 18th century in pursuit of Sea Otter skins. As the Pacific counterpart to the Atlantic beaver trade, the sea otter trade led trappers into the North Pacific, where they established bases from the Aleutian Islands to Baja California. In China, Sea Otter furs were exchanged at good profit for prized Oriental goods.
Russia and Spain were the pioneer nations to engage in the Sea Otter trade. After Vitus Bering's expeditions in the early 18th century, promyshlenniki (fur traders) pushed eastward, and in 1784 they established the first permanent Russian settlement in America, on Kodiak Island. In the same year, Spain organized a Sea Otter trade between California and China. At the opening of the 19th century, American and Russian traders entered the California Sea Otter fields, where in the face of strong opposition they poached throughout the Spanish period. After 1821 the liberal commercial policy of independent Mexico stimulated the California Sea Otter trade, and many Americans became Mexican citizens to participate in the business. Between 1804 and 1807 it is estimated that almost 60,000 furs were taken by American vessels, while the period 1808–1812 yielded nearly 50,000.
The Sea Otter trade ended once hunting nearly exterminated the animals. In general, the fur areas were exhausted in the order they were opened. Kamchatka and the Aleutians were depleted by 1790, Kodiak by 1805, Sitka to Nootka Sound by 1820, and California by 1840. A treaty signed in 1910 by the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and Japan banned the hunting of Sea Otters. However, Sea Otter trade still exists. Sea Otter pelts are also being sold in Russia, with at least 300 skins being sold on the black market in Moscow in summer 2005. Most of these were obtained illegally from the Commander Islands Biosphere Nature Reserve. Since then we have been informed that a further 300 Sea Otter skins were being sold openly on the black market at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, with 200 of them from the Commander Islands. Most of these skins will be sold on to the markets in China (IOSF 2006).
In Alaska the Marine Mammal Protection Act allows for coastal Native people to hunt northern Sea Otters for subsistence use (personal uses and barter or trade of unaltered pelts with other Native people), and for creating and selling authentic handicrafts or clothing provided the taking was not wasteful; there is no other legal harvest of Sea Otters. The harvest of Sea Otters is monitored by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Marking, Tagging and Reporting program and all pelts are required to be tagged within 30 days of the hunt. The 5 year mean of the annual harvest reported to the Service for all three population stocks totaled 765 Sea Otters (U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Stock Assessment Reports http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/sars/species.htm).
Oil spills are the greatest anthropogenic threat to Sea Otter (Geraci and Williams 1990). Sea Otters become hypothermic when oiled because oiled Sea Otter fur loses its insulative property and Sea Otters have no blubber layer, oil can be ingested while grooming, leading to gastrointestinal disorders, other ailments and death and volatile components of oil inhaled by Sea Otters can cause lung damage. Estimates of sea otter mortality following the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound ranged from 2,650 (Garrott et al. 1993) to 3,905 (DeGange et al. 1994).
Significant numbers of Sea Otters drowned in gill and trammel nets in California from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s (Estes 1990). Recent population declines in California’s Sea Otters may be incidental to summer commercial fisheries. Estes et al. (2003) found that Sea Otter mortality was elevated in the summer months and that commercial fin fish landings in the coastal live trap fishery increased. Recent analyses indicated annual Sea Otter carcass recoveries and reported fishery landings were significantly correlated.
Thomas and Cole (1996) found 10% of southern Sea Otters they examined to be emaciated without specific cause of mortality. Severe weather and periodic climatic events such as El Niño can disrupt foraging behaviour and food availability, and increase pup loss. Under these circumstances, Sea Otters may find it difficult to meet their high metabolic needs, leading to malnutrition or starvation. Serious tooth wear in older Sea Otters may also contribute to mortality (Riedman and Estes 1990). Recent studies have found infectious disease to be an important mortality factor in California Sea Otter populations. Around 280 Sea Otters found dead have been linked “to a pair of protozoan parasites, Toxoplasma gondii and Sacrocystis neurona, that are known to breed in cats and opossums (Conrad et al. 2005, Johnson et al. 2009). In Alaska, Streptococcal endocarditis, encephalitis and/or septicemia, referred to as Strep. syndrome has been identified in forensic-level necropies of northern sea otters (Unusual mortality event working group) as well as trauma from boat strikes. Goldstein et al. (2009) found northern sea otters from the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak and Kachemak Bay area infected with phocine distemper.
Killer Whales (Orcinus orca), Great White Sharks (Carcharodon carcharias), Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), Coyotes (Canis latrans), and Brown Bears (Ursus arctos) have been documented as predators of Sea Otters (Riedman and Estes 1990). Predation by Killer Whales is one factor that is believed to have caused Sea Otter population declines across the Western Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands (Doroff et al. 2003, Estes et al. 1998, Hatfield et al. 1998). Significant declines in preferred prey species populations - Northern Fur Seals (Callorhinus ursinus), Harbour Seals (Phoca vitulina), and Steller Sea Lions (Eumetopias jubatus) are believed to have caused Killer Whales to prey switch and consume Sea Otters (Estes et al. 1998).
Studies in Alaska and Washington and elsewhere have shown that Sea Otter predation on sea urchins may indirectly enhance the growth of kelp and kelp-associated communities. Shellfish are important to commercial, recreational, and tribal fisheries throughout the species range and predation by Sea Otters can be significant and result in localized fisheries and economic issues.
Enhydra lutris nereis is listed on CITES Appendix I. All other populations are included in CITES Appendix II. In Canada, Sea Otters are protected and managed under the Species at Risk Act. In the United States, Sea Otters are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) and in Southwest Alaska and California, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA). The US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is the federal agency responsible for their conservation and management. The ESA also makes it illegal to buy, sell or possess any part of endangered species or items made from them. However, both the ESA and the Act allow for coastal Native people in Alaska to harvest Sea Otters for personal use, trade, barter, and the development of cottage industry. Native subsistence harvest of Sea Otters is monitored by the Service through a Marking, Tagging and Reporting program. The Service and Native organizations conduct joint population surveys and dialog on important conservations issues. The MMPA also mandates that efforts must be made to recover the species, which means creating and implementing a plan for returning them to healthy population levels.
|Citation:||Doroff, A. & Burdin, A. 2013. Enhydra lutris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 26 March 2015.|
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