The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Research and Conservation (SORAC) program has been studying and trying to save the threatened southern sea otter since 1984. We rescue, treat and release injured otters; raise and release stranded pups through our surrogate program; provide care for sea otters that can't return to the wild, and conduct scientific research.
Sea Otters Under Siege
Southern sea otters once ranged from Baja California to the Pacific Northwest. But by the 1920s they were considered extinct due to intensive hunting. They were listed as "threatened with extinction" under the Endangered Species Act in 1977. But despite decades of federal and state protection, the population of southern sea otters
(Enhydra lutris nereis
) which resides along the California coast, struggles to survive at a fraction of its historic numbers, estimated at 16,000-20,000 animals.
No one knows why the population isn't recovering. Pathogens and parasites, possibly linked to coastal pollution, can weaken otter immune systems. And the risk of a major oil spill remains a serious threat.
Why are sea otters important?
Sea otters are an iconic species, representing the beauty and diversity of life in Monterey Bay. They're also a keystone species, helping keep ocean ecosystems in balance. They eat sea urchins and other invertebrates that graze on giant kelp. Without sea otters, these grazing animals can destroy kelp forests and the animals that live there.
Sea otters are also good indicators of ocean health. Since they are the top predator of invertebrates along the California coast, changes in their health can make scientists aware of variations in the ocean environment itself.
Sea Otter Recovery
By 1911, when sea otters gained protection under international treaty, a small group of perhaps 50 otters survived along the remote Big Sur coast. Since then, they've slowly expanded their range and grown in number to nearly 2,800. As of 2012, their range extends from south of Half Moon Bay in the north to south of Point Conception in the south; only a small part of their historic range.