This week is the 15th annual Sea Otter Awareness Week! These cute and wonderful creatures have captured the love of many but because of numerous factors, they’re considered to be at a threatened conservation status. Sea otters are found along the coastal areas of the North Pacific Ocean and range from the shores of Japan to the coast of Alaska and all along the coast of North America down to Baja, California.
These animals are incredibly important, as they’re a keystone species in the areas they live in and are often a good indicator of ocean health. The National Geographic defines a keystone species as “an organism that helps to define an entire ecosystem” and for sea otters, that means helping to maintain the surrounding environment by eating sea urchins, crabs, and other invertebrates.
Surprisingly, sea otters don’t have blubber and make up for that with their fur coat and by eating relatively a lot. They typically eat about 20-25% of their body weight to maintain their body temperature and their diet often consists of clams, mussels, crabs, mollusks, fish, and much more. They’re also apparently messy eaters! Some researchers have even seen hungry harlequin ducks trailing otters to pick up the pieces left behind. While sea otters are messy eaters, they do keep meticulously clean after the fact.
There are a few factors in why sea otters are considered to be threatened. Historically, one of the biggest threats was wide scale hunting, as the species was almost hunted to extinction for their pelts. The number of sea otters severely plummeted during that time, with their population going from an estimated 300,000 worldwide to around 2,000. Currently, sea otters are protected, which has allowed for their population numbers to grow over the years.
While hunting is no longer a huge issue for sea otters, there are other factors that contribute to the fact that this species is still endangered. A 2009 study, for example, showed that sea otters off the coast of Washington state were exposed to pathogens that have caused disease for other marine-mammal populations. But, the study also found that the otters seemed to only be exposed and there weren’t signs of mortality in the population.
And it turns out that domesticated cats pose an indirect hazard to sea otters and other wildlife. Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite found in cat feces and can cause fatal infections in sea otters. A single infected cat can shed up to 100 million oocysts (egg-like structures) in its feces and studies from California estimate that cats in the United States deposit 1.2 million tons of poop into the environment every year. Toxoplasma gondii is usually asymptomatic in humans, although it can affect a fetus if you become infected while pregnant and serious complications might arise in those with compromised immune systems. If you do have a cat and would like to minimize the risk of this parasite for yourself and life around you, there are a few things you can do:
- Cat litter should be properly thrown away, not flushed down the toilet. Flushing cat poop is the easy way to get rid of it but allows for the possibility of toxoplasma gondii to enter nearby waterways.
- If you have a sandbox in your yard for kids to play in, make sure to cover it whenever it’s not in use. These sandboxes are perfect bathrooms for feral or outside cats!
Other threats to sea otters include major oil spills, food availability, habitat degradation, and conflicts with humans. There are a few organizations that have been working on sea otter conservation, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Friends of the Sea Otter, and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
If you’d like to learn more about these cute and important animals, here are some great resources:
- Sea otter facts [pdf]
- Sea otters background – Glacier Bay, National Park Service
- The sea otter exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (the aquarium even has a sea otter cam and a video that highlights the daily activities if you’re not able to visit in person!)
- You otter know! – Imogen Farris, the Georgia Aquarium
- The Southern Sea Otter – the Monterey Bay Aquarium
- The Southern Sea Otter – the Oregon Zoo