Southern (California) sea otter. DFG photo
Mature sea otter in kelp bed. DFG photo
Celebrate Sea Otter Awareness Week with the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG)! The last full week of each September numerous organizations work to educate, inform and entertain the public with sea otter-related activities.
This year DFG is celebrating the birth of a pup to "Olive" (the once-oiled otter). This is a milestone in oiled wildlife rehabilitation because it is believed to be the first time a previously oiled sea otter in California has given birth to a pup. About half of all pups don't make it to weaning, so scientists won't call it a true success until this pup is a weaned, healthy thriving sea otter. DFG staff have been monitoring Olive ever since she was rescued, cleaned, rehabilitated and released in spring 2009 and will continue to do so from a safe distance, without disturbing mother and pup. DFG's Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) has created a Facebook page to follow her progress (www.facebook.com/OlivetheOiledOtter
Specific upcoming events related to Sea Otter Awareness Week include the following:
Wildlife Veterinarian Melissa Miller will make a Sea Otter Awareness Week presentation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. Dr. Miller will explain how DFG scientists use "CSI" procedures to identify the diseases, parasites and environmental problems affecting sea otters in California's waters.
DFG Biologist Colleen Young will demonstrate the equipment she uses to track sea otters in Capitola from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25 and 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27. Meet her at the picnic tables at "The Hook" (the corner of East Cliff Dr. and 41st Ave.).
On Sept. 27, two otter lectures will be held at the Seymour Center at Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz. Stori Oates, who works for DFG and the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, will present The Land-Sea Connection: What Southern Sea Otters Can Tell Us About Coastal Health. Lectures begin at 7 p.m.
Other events celebrating the Central Coast's most famous marine residents include free public lectures at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz (http://seymourcenter.ucsc.edu
/), a kayak tour at Elkhorn Slough, and otter-themed activities at the Marine Mammal Center, California Academy of Sciences, Estuary Nature Center in Morro Bay, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, the Aquarium of the Pacific and Sea World San Diego. The Friends of the Sea Otter website provides further details and dates at www.seaotterweek.org/#!events/cmm9
Sea Otter Awareness Week serves to remind people to watch out for - and keep their distance from - sea otters when boating, paddling, or surfing on the Central Coast. Be especially careful in kelp beds, as otters wrap themselves and their pups in kelp on the surface to sleep and keep from drifting away. The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires people on the water to stay far enough from the animals (at least 50 yards) to not cause them to change their behavior. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides a handbook for ocean users at http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/outreach/pdfs/wildlife_watching_handbook.pdf
Sea otters are an indicator species - that is, their health and population reflect the health of our nearshore ecosystem, from kelp forests to fisheries. They once numbered between several hundred thousand and more than a million, worldwide. The fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries caused sea otter populations to collapse, and by the early 1900s, the California sea otter population was thought extinct. In 1938 a small remnant population of otters was discovered off the Big Sur coast. Protection under the Endangered Species Act and the efforts of many Californians have helped increase that population, but they are far from full recovery. The 2012 spring population survey by DFG-OSPR, the U.S. Geological Survey and Monterey Bay Aquarium produced a population index of 2,792 sea otters in California. This indicates their population growth is much slower than it should be after years of no growth and decades of slow recovery.
DFG scientists are working to identify the cause of this plateau and find solutions to get the sea otter population growing again. California taxpayers can support DFG's sea otter program by making voluntary contributions to the California Sea Otter Fund on line 410 of their state income tax returns. More information on this program is posted at www.dfg.ca.gov/taxcheck/