Sea otters are one of many charismatic species found along the California coast, yet recovery doesn’t seem to be helping them. Is it something about their habitat that is preventing population growth? (Image Credit: Mike Baird, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)
Gaps in kelp cover may threaten the recovery of California sea otters (2018) Nicholson et al., Ecography, DOI:10.1111/ecog.03561
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fur trade was a massive industry in North America. As a result, many species were hunted and trapped to near extinction. The California sea otter (Enhydra lutris) was reduced in population to less than 50 total individuals. The enactment of the Internation Fur Treaty allowed the species (and others) to come back from the brink of extinction, and they now number over 3200 individuals and are spread across 525km of the California coast. Interestingly, although the population is recovering, it has not bounced back as quickly as other protected mammals living in the same habitat. The California sea lion, for example, has a maximum population growth rate more than twice that of the sea otter (11.7% compared to 5%).
Despite the remarkable recovery of the species, the sea otters occupy less than a quarter of their historic range and have not expanded along the coast in 20 years. The authors of this paper wanted to investigate what it is about the sea otters and their habitat that is slowing this population’s growth rate and spread along the coast.