Featured Image Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium
By Sarah Sharkey
Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, a sea otter fur was one of the most luxurious items you could buy due to its extreme warm and sleek style. This fashion statement unfortunately almost led to the extinction of sea otters through unsustainable hunting.
Luckily, in the 20th century the idea of protecting the creatures of the world became a reality.
The sea otter was protected under the Endangered Species Act as well as the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The newfound protection had a huge impact on the sea otter population; according to biologists at the U.S. Geological Survey, otters have been increasing their numbers by at least 3% every year for the past five years! This impressive population growth that gives scientists hope for the future of the sea otter population.
One factor that is severely limiting the otter population growth is shark mortality. Great white sharks frequently hunt in the regions that sea otters live in. It is not believed that white sharks are hunting specifically for sea otters, but instead confuse the sea otters with seals.
The sea otters share a habitat range with elephant seals that are a large food source for great whites. The Endangered Species Act also protects the great white shark, but the species is notoriously hard to study so scientists are unable to tell if their population is growing. Whether it is growing or not, great white sharks definitely take a bite out of the sea otter population. Mostly through exploratory bites by young sharks though, as the sharks mature they are better able to identify their prey (the elephant seal).
Laird Henkel, a senior environmental scientist at Fish and Wildlife, says that for the sea otter population to really grow it would have to expand either north or south beyond the Central Coast. Currently the only otters to make it past the “shark line” are wanderers who went south. But so far all of the explorers have been males and Henkel states that females will probably not be moving into a new area anytime soon.
The hope is that over time the otter population will continue to grow and then be forced to expand north and south past the overlapping territories of the elephant seals in order to avoid predatory white sharks.