April 24, 2023

Saving Southern Sea Otters

Earthrise recently assisted Environment America, Environment Oregon, and Environment California in drafting and submitting comments to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking the Service to make a negative determination on a petition to delist the Southern sea otter from the Endangered Species Act.

Photo by Mike Baird. CC-BY-2.0

Southern sea otters, one of three subspecies of sea otters, historically ranged from present-day Punta Abreojos, Baja California, Mexico, to as far north as southern Oregon. An estimated 16,000 to 20,000 sea otters are believed to have resided in the area that is now California, but as a result of the fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, the species was extirpated throughout most of its range. Approximately fifty individuals survived near Brixby Creek in Monterey County, California.

Sea otters’ conservation status has only marginally improved since their original ESA listing in 1977. After forty-six years of federal protection under the ESA, the subspecies’ range has only expanded a mere three percent, from about 10 to 13 percent of its historic range. The estimated population today is 2,962 animals range-wide.

The current threats to southern sea otters’ habitat and range are largely byproducts of climate change, specifically warming ocean temperatures. These threats include an increase in shark-bite mortality (the seasonal period in which white sharks interacted with otters quadrupled between 1997 and 2017, from two to eight months) and a decrease in kelp forests due to warming ocean temperatures (otters use areas with kelp canopies for foraging, resting, and protection from predators). Other threats include human disturbance (e.g., kayakers), infectious disease, pollution (including from oil spills), and vessel strikes.

Read more about the threats to the Southern sea otter and why USFWS should not remove them from the ESA by reading the comments here (see “Comment from Environment America Research & Policy Center”). Thanks to Professor Dan Rohlf (Of Counsel at Earthrise) and Earthrise students Caitlin Dols (3L) and Sowmiya Raju (2L) for their excellent work on this matter.