More Otters Off CA Coastlines, Sorta

More California sea otters are swimming and frolicking in the waves according to a recent population census published by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The threatened species – once assumed extinct – is showing a slow growth thanks to more pups and the addition of San Nicholas Island sea otters to the overall population count.  Sea otters were introduced to the island, one of the farthest of the Channel Islands, in the 1980s.

The otter population is reported annually as a three-year-running average, and rose to 2,941 this year, up from last year’s average of 2,792.  The survey counted otters from San Francisco Bay to  Santa Barbara coastlines.

Not considered an experiment anymore, the sea otters that live off San Nicolas Island are now part of the overall picture of California otters. In the 1982, 146 otters were introduced to the island, but most of them returned to the mainland, died or simply disappeared. The sea otter relocation program was since dropped by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service early this year. Recently, 59 otters were counted at San Nicolas.


It’s unclear if any of the acrobatic otters have put up stakes south of the Channel Islands and into Los Angeles or Orange Counties.

Biologist Tim Tinker who supervised the annual survey is cautiously optimistic about the findings, knowing that the numbers can greatly fluctuate from region to region as well as year to year. “We look at the larger trend from 1982 to today,” he says. “That gives you a more accurate idea of how the population is doing.”

Researchers found a record number of pups this year, however, the number of adults along the mainland was almost identical to last year’s count. More babies, same adult numbers, hmmmm.

Certainly the adorable mammals have made strides in numbers since they were rediscovered back in the area in the 1930s.  But a number of challenges face the furry swimmers up and down the coastline, none the least is pollution run-off, getting tangled in fishing gear, etc.

In some areas, especially between Cayucos and Pismo Beach, otters are being discovered with white shark bite wounds. Are the sharks confusing otters for young sea lions and sneaking a little taste? Hard to tell, says Tinker. Not big in the blubber category, sea otters are not a typical shark prey.

In other areas, however, sea otters are improving not only their numbers, but the world around them. In Elkhorn Slough near Monterey Bay, sea otters were re-colonized in the 1990s. The furry mammals’ appetites for crabs have been improving the local seagrass beds which were suffering with too many crabs and sea slugs.

— Brenda Rees, editor, featured photo by Mike Baird