By the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced [this week] that southern sea otters will retain their status as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Following an in-depth review of the species’ status, including information provided by species experts, the Service has announced a not-warranted 12-month finding on a petition to remove ESA protection for the southern sea otter. Read the species status assessment here.
“While southern sea otters have made strides toward recovery after coming back from the brink of extinction in our recent history, they continue to face significant threats from climate change , shark-bite mortality, and limited range,” said Steve Henry, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura. “Based on scientific projections of future conditions for the species, these threats will continue to impact southern sea otter abundance and connectivity between populations in ways that will most likely reduce the ability of the species to sustain itself in the future.”
Climate change is expected to increase exposure to harmful pathogens and algal and cyanobacterial blooms, increase susceptibility to white shark bites through losses in kelp canopy cover and increases in thermal conditions favorable to subadult white sharks, and decrease some prey availability through ocean acidification. Climate change is currently influencing these hazards and is expected to amplify them in the future.
In 2021, the Service received a petition to delist the southern sea otter. In August 2022, the Service published a 90-day finding that the petition presented substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that delisting may be warranted, prompting an in-depth review of the species status and 12-month finding. The Service reviewed the best available science to evaluate the status of the species by preparing a species status assessment. This species status assessment and associated 12-month finding contributes additional information to help inform recovery efforts for southern sea otters.
In 2021, as directed by Congress, the Service assessed the feasibility of reintroducing sea otters to portions of the west coast in Northern California and Oregon where they once thrived. The assessment concluded that reintroduction was biologically feasible and may have significant benefits for sea otters and nearshore marine ecosystems, but that additional information about how reintroduction would affect stakeholders and local communities is needed before considering next steps. There is no active proposal to reintroduce sea otters at this time.
The Service’s 12-month finding on the petition to delist the southern sea otter under the Endangered Species Act and supporting information for the decision will publish in the Federal Register under Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2023-0132 on Sept. 20, 2023.
About southern sea otters
Southern sea otters occupy only about 13 percent of their historical range. They once ranged from Oregon to Baja California, Mexico. Today, they inhabit portions of the central California coast from San Mateo County to Santa Barbara County and the waters surrounding San Nicolas Island in Ventura County.
Like all sea otters along the North Pacific rim, southern sea otters were hunted to near extinction during the fur trade of the 1700s and 1800s. The subspecies survived because a few dozen animals eluded hunters off the rugged coast of Big Sur. Southern sea otters are now protected under the ESA, Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and California state law. The southern sea otter population has grown slowly since receiving federal protections in the 1970s, fluctuating around 3,000 in recent years.
Sea otters play a fundamental role in the ecological health of nearshore ecosystems. Their presence in the ocean enhances biodiversity, increases carbon sequestration by kelp and seagrass, and makes the ecosystem more resilient to the effects of climate change. Unlike whales and seals, sea otters lack blubber. Instead, they rely on their dense fur coat and elevated metabolism to stay warm. The average adult sea otter must eat 20 to 30 percent of its body mass in food each day just to meet its energy requirements. Sea otters need to conserve energy, which means that uninterrupted rest is an important part their well-being. To minimize the potential for disturbance and harm to sea otters, people sharing sea otter habitat should:
Be aware of your surroundings and alert to nearby wildlife when recreating.
Maintain a safe distance—if a sea otter notices you, you are likely too close and should back away. Keep kayaks at least 60 feet (or five kayak lengths) away, passing by parallel rather than pointing directly at any animals and moving slowly but steadily past rather than stopping.
Keep pets on a leash on and around docks and harbors and never allow interactions, even if the animals appear to be playing.
Never feed sea otters, as they can become aggressive, which could result in their removal from the population and placement in an animal care facility