Counting Noses: Not an Easy Feat

Counting Noses: Not an Easy Feat

By Kim Steinhardt and Gena Bentall


How many southern sea otters are there? Is the number rising or falling? Where are they on the road to recovery? What are the biggest threats they face?

These and many more questions like them are central to the sea otter conservation story, a story that began with humans hunting them to near extinction by the early 1900s. Researchers, conservation activists, and marine, fishery, and wildlife management specialists all seek to have a solid foundation of reliable data on which to develop and support science-based policy decisions affecting the recovery of sea otters.

The most southerly of the three sea otter subspecies, the southern sea otter, once populated the coast all the way south into Baja California before being hunted down to a remnant few by the turn of the century. This keystone species was reduced to perhaps 30 or 40 individuals by 1911, and even now—more than one hundred years later—the southern sea otter still numbers only a little over 3,000. This small population is distributed along the central California coastline from about Pigeon Point in San Mateo County, to the north, to Gaviota State Beach in Santa Barbara County, to the south, with a small translocated population at San Nicolas Island, off Ventura County. Growth at the center of this mainland range (Seaside to Cayucos) is likely to be limited, as the sea otter populations there are thought to be at carrying capacity—the number the current habitat resources can support. Sustained growth and recovery will require expansion in the numbers of sea otters at the north and south range fronts.

In order to effectively direct conservation efforts and scientific study, we must have a better understanding of whether the numbers of sea otters in California are growing, declining, or staying steady.

Researchers track population trends with an annual census in which they survey the numbers of sea otters in California. Teams of well-trained and experienced counters go out into the field each spring and make a coordinated and thorough count, seeking sea otters along the coast of California on foot and from airplanes. Counting every sea otter nose along hundreds of miles of their coastal range—from rugged Año Nuevo to the sandy dunes of Pismo Beach, the wild seas of Pt. Conception, and the remote island of San Nicolas—is a bit of a tricky undertaking.

This annual effort, coordinated by the U.S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center, involves participants from California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Monterey Bay Aquarium, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Sea Otter Savvy, and others.

Each annual survey results in a “raw number”—the actual number of sea otters counted. Many factors may influence the accuracy of the raw number from year to year, including kelp species composition and abundance, viewing conditions, observer experience, and the movements and distribution of the sea otters themselves. Any of these factors, alone or in combination, may affect the observers’ ability to visually locate sea otters. For example, in years when there is a very low abundance of giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) canopy, sea otters tend to be more widely scattered, increasing the likelihood that observers will miss some otters as they scan. For this reason, no single year’s raw count is a reliable indicator of growth or decline from the previous year. The official data point for each year is based on an average of counts from three consecutive years. For example, the data point for 2017 is based on the averaged raw counts from 2015, 2016, and 2017. This running three-year average is referred to as the “population index,” and it is the metric used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to track the status of the population.

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Viewed alongside each other for multiple years, the population index data points indicate trends of growth or decline in the southern sea otter population, but that is not to say anomalously high or low raw counts aren’t worthy of notice and concern. In the case of the last two years—2016 and 2017—we have extremes at both ends of the spectrum: a record high raw number in 2016 and a steep drop in 2017. Both are reason to be attentive. While the current population index shows a 3 percent decline from last year, we will have to wait until 2018 to know if the raw count from 2017 indicates a more concerning longer-term trend.

To understand the importance researchers and policymakers place on the running average, we need to recognize the limitations of the individual yearly raw number. A sharp increase or decrease in the raw count may in fact prove to be an indicator of real trends in the population over the course of several years, or it may turn out to be the fleeting result of observer error due to poor conditions or other factors influencing the accuracy of the count that year. To get a meaningful view of population trends, we need to look beyond what’s right in front of our noses and take in the bigger picture.

Counting noses: a tricky business indeed.

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Media Contact:

Friends of the Sea Otter


Leigh Anne Tiffany, Defenders of Wildlife; 202-772-0259


CARMEL, Calif. (Sept. 29, 2017) – The southern sea otter population dropped in the last year, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) 2017 spring survey published yesterday. The results are especially alarming following an overall positive growth through 2016, which culminated in a population size that – if maintained for three consecutive years – could have led to southern sea otters being delisted under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) noted a 3 percent decline in sea otter numbers, their statement fails to tell the whole story.  The FWS was correct in that the three-year average reflects only a 3 percent decline, but they did not note that the raw numbers of sea otters counted during the spring survey declined by 927 sea otters between the mainland and San Nicolas Island – an over 25 percent decline from the raw numbers of sea otters counted last year.

Jennifer Covert, Board Chair of Friends of the Sea Otter, issued this statement:

“This dramatic decline in the sea otter population raw count calls into question our optimism over the potential recovery of this species, and is a wake-up call to redouble our efforts to understand this downward trend and to save these important and beautiful creatures.

Emily Burke, California program assistant for Defenders of Wildlife, issued this statement:

“As go sea otters, so goes our nearshore marine ecosystem. This staggering decline in their population after years of growth is concerning, and signals that it is too early to declare the sea otter fully recovered.”


The 2017 USGS southern sea otter survey results showed the raw count population size dropped to 2,688 an over 25 percent decline from last year. The 2016 survey recorded a raw count population size of 3,615, the highest survey result ever. The decline in population survey results is the largest numerical and percentage decline in consecutive years since the annual survey began in 1985.

The causes of population decline unfortunately remain uncertain. One likely factor is the increased incidence of attacks by white sharks on sea otters at the southern end of the sea otter range. While scientists are unable to confirm why the rate of shark attacks has increased, it could be the result of sharks spending more time in nearshore waters because of the recent increase in their primary prey, pinnipeds like northern elephant seals.

Additionally, shifts in ocean current patterns due to climate change may be changing the distribution of marine ecosystem food chains. With a thick fur coat and no blubber layer, sea otters are not a traditional source of prey for sharks. While sea otters have always been mistaken for traditional prey sources and attacked, the substantial increase in shark attacks is likely an artifact of changes in shark distribution patterns. Other factors in the sea otter decline may include a decrease in the number of sea urchins—one of sea otters’ preferred prey items—following a few years of relatively large urchin populations, as well as compromised water quality in the nearshore environment due to pollution and agricultural runoff.

FSO and Defenders of Wildlife maintain that regardless if the population exceeds 3,090 for three consecutive years, the sea otter is unlikely to meet the full criteria for delisting and recovery under the ESA. The 2017 spring survey results reinforce FSO’s and Defenders of Wildlife’s position that additional range expansion and healthy and sustained population size significantly above the recovery threshold of 3,090 are necessary for the population to be considered for a recovery determination.

The magnitude of the population decline emphasizes the importance of providing full protection of sea otters under the ESA and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. FSO encourages the public to avoid engaging in activities that could result in harassment or harmful interactions with sea otters. For additional information regarding appropriate sea otter viewing guidelines, please refer to the Sea Otter Savvy program at


Friends of the Sea Otter (FSO) is an advocacy group, founded in 1968, dedicated to actively working with state and federal agencies and other groups to maintain, increase and broaden the current protections for the sea otter, a species currently protected by state and federal laws, and with two geographic populations on the Endangered Species list. We wish to inspire the public at large to increase awareness about the otters’ unique behavior and habitat, and to take action to recover this remarkable species. For more information, visit

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With nearly than 1.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.

The Sea Otter Savvy Program: Respect the Nap!

The Sea Otter Savvy Program: Respect the Nap!

Becoming Sea Otter Savvy

by Friends of the Sea Otter’s guest writer, Gena Bentall, Program Coordinator, Sea Otter Savvy,

For thirteen years as a sea otter biologist, I spent most of the hours of most of my days watching sea otters in the wild. With my telescope on a sandy coastal bluff, cypress covered rocky point, or bustling wharf, I was a distant, secret observer of the lives of sea otters as they went about the business of living: finding food, attending to their insulating fur, raising their pups, and sleeping—at times in the embrace of a frond of kelp and other times seeming so vulnerable adrift on an open sea. But attached to the privilege of insight into the private lives of such a charismatic marine mammal, was a toll I had not anticipated. I must watch, helpless at a distance, the relentless disruption to their natural (and necessary) behaviors by the activities of humans. Together with my sea otter biologist colleagues, I have witnessed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incidents where our recreational activities—kayaking, stand-up-paddling, beachcombing, scuba diving—interrupt the rest, grooming, and foraging of sea otters. I have seen pups frantic as they are separated from their mothers by a well-intentioned family on kayaks who likely would have been horrified to know the trauma they caused. I have seen one raft disturbed time after time in a single day with just enough time to groom their wetted fur and settle into the kelp before the next group of kayaks comes through and flushes them again. I’ve been asked, “If the disturbance is so bad, why don’t they just go somewhere else?”

Genas last day 1024x768 The Sea Otter Savvy Program: Respect the Nap!

Sea otters, with their high metabolisms and inability to sufficiently store energy (they do not have the blubber layer seals and whales have), are very dependent on the availability of the marine invertebrate prey upon which they feed for survival day to day. Mothers rearing pups find it especially risky to move to an unfamiliar place, away from human disturbance, to find enough food for themselves and a growing pup. They must adapt, or risk their own life and that of their pup. As a bystander to this, knowing the potential cost to the otters about whom I felt so passionately, I wondered what to do to help.  While every person engaging in marine activities should understand the federal and state laws protecting sea otters and other marine life, it is impractical to expect law enforcement to curtail the widespread disturbance that occurs daily in some areas.  Shouting at errant kayakers from shore seemed weak and ineffective. It left my voice hoarse, and my disposition unsatisfied that I had solved the larger problem: that, as a community, we need a better, stronger ethic of respecting our wildlife neighbors.

In spring of 2014, at the biennial Southern Sea Otter Research Update Meeting, at Long Marine Laboratories in Santa Cruz, some of the most influential sea otter agency and organization representatives convened a special working group to address the issue of disturbance to sea otters by human marine recreation activities. It was here that the idea of a program dedicated to creating awareness of the unique vulnerability of sea otters to disturbance and fostering an ethic of good stewardship, was conceived. As a group we agreed that most disturbance is the result of lack of awareness rather than intent to cause harassment. Most people paddling up to a raft of wild sea otters have little understanding of their behavior, no recognition that their actions may be the cause of disturbance, and no awareness they are neither the first, nor last, kayak these otters will encounter that day. Through the collaborative efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Friends of the Sea Otter, and, the concept of this new, outreach-based program, Sea Otter Savvy, was developed. Sea Otter Savvy received our first funding in fall of 2015 and launched shortly thereafter. I am proud and excited, having been appointed Program Coordinator, to have an opportunity to translate what I have learned as a sea otter biologist into effective strategies for creating a safe and more peaceful coexistence where the favorite places of otters and humans overlap.

scan stills 040 1024x384 The Sea Otter Savvy Program: Respect the Nap!

In our first months we have activated a Citizen Science program with volunteers in two central coast counties (Monterey and San Luis Obispo) in the field collecting data on sea otter activity as it relates to many potential sources of disturbance. In September of 2015, Sea Otter Savvy convened and hosted an unprecedented summit of the best and brightest folks on the coast who are working to reduce disturbance to a variety of coastal wildlife. Representatives from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Audubon Society, LiMPETS, Seabird Protection Network, MPA Collaborative Group, and many others joined together at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories to identify disturbance issues, come up with solutions, and foster collaboration.  Collaboration springing from this summit continues, and Sea Otter Savvy is leading teams planning Wildlife Awareness Workshops in Morro Bay and Monterey. Our first deployment of outreach materials is imminent, and we are poised to launch our Be Sea Otter Savvy kayak decal, which will provide guidelines for responsible viewing to those renting kayaks along the central coast. Look for our decals soon on the fleet of Monterey Bay Kayaks in Monterey and Moss Landing! We are excited to implement many more ideas and strategies in the coming months!

If you are lucky enough to live along the Central California coast, you have chosen a home where your neighbors are not only human, but a rich assortment of coastal and marine wildlife. Here, you share space with sea otters who, with their powerful role in maintaining the health of our near shore communities, are seashore superheroes. They are esteemed neighbors, and often the best we can do to be neighborly is give them the space they need to do the things they need to do to survive. We hope you will join Sea Otter Savvy in promoting the respectful sharing of space with our wild neighbors: know, follow, and share guidelines for safe viewing of sea otters and all kinds of wildlife, model responsible behavior when you are on the water, and foster an ethic of respect and empathy towards all in our community, human and non-human.  The next time you see a peacefully resting sea otter, consider how you would like to be treated: Respect the nap!

Learn more about the Sea Otter Savvy program at!


Help Sea Otters and be a Part of History

Help Sea Otters and be a Part of History

An Evening at Wild Bird

Friends of the Sea Otter is excited to announce the date for “An Evening at Wild Bird”

On September 26, 2015, the event will take place at the former home of Friends of the Sea Otter founder, the late Margaret Owings.  Wild Bird, as Margaret called the home overlooking the magnificent Big Sur Coast, will be the setting to launch a new era in sea otter conservation.  Wild Bird is historic because of the groundbreaking conservation issues Margaret Owings developed and initiated while living in this home.  It is here, at this very location, where Margaret Owings and many of her friends and colleagues would deliberate and find solutions for not only sea otter issues, but many other critical conservation initiatives.

Friends of the Sea Otter, will host an evening of hors d’oeuvres and cocktails overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean, followed by a catered dinner and dessert, which will then lead into discussions with various noted friends and colleagues of Margaret Owings and Friends of the Sea Otter co-founder, Dr. Jim Mattison.  The list of invited guests includes former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and noted sea otter expert, Dr. Tim Tinker. “An Evening at Wild Bird” will host speakers discussing the mission of Friends of the Sea Otter and its advocacy efforts relating to the emerging studies surrounding this keystone species and its ecosystem, and new strategies to recover this species. Gayle Crowell 2 Help Sea Otters and be a Part of History

Please make your plans now to be a part of a historic evening of discussion and promise in Friends of the Sea Otter’s nearly 50-year mission of protecting sea otters and their habitat.  Click here for more information and how you can sign up to attend.

Not Again! When Will We Learn?

Not Again! When Will We Learn?

On May 19th, a tragic  event unfolded along the Santa Barbara coastline that serves as a serious reminder to the world – oil spills and wildlife don’t mix.  Needless to say, oil spills’ impacts reach farther than just killing wildlife.  They close beaches, put livelihoods on hold, minimize ocean recreation, and they simply scar the land, ocean and its inhabitants, impacting people who come to enjoy these special areas.

Friends of the Sea Otter knows all too well the deadly consequences oil spills have upon sea otters due to the Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred just slightly more than a quarter decade ago in 1989.  Sea otters die of hypothermia or ingesting the oil, which then gets into their internal organs and causes damage.  These similar impacts happen to other animals.

The deadly toll in this recent oil spill includes marine birds, marine mammals, other marine vertebrates, and marine invertebrates.  It is so disheartening to see the images flooding the news, social media, other media sites of oiled animals!

As of Thursday, June 4, 173 birds have been collected – 58 live, 115 dead – and 100 mammals – 42 live, 58 dead, and more than 14,000 gallons of oily water mixture has been collected.

There have been many things that have come up as to why this happened and why the initial response was inadequate.  These are all important things to address.  What is more important is the constant goal of preventing it from happening in the first place.  One area of emphasis is the need to move away from oil exploration and development in sensitive habitats like this.  Problems are always going to happen with these methods of extracting oil.  We need to focus on alternative energy and put our foot down in saying enough is enough.  We should have learned from the Gulf Oil Spill from five years ago.  We had ample time to learn from that tragic event, and we haven’t. And, until we really say “No More!”, we will continue to get news reports about these tragic, yet preventable events. Let’s learn this time and not repeat historic mistakes like these.

The Legacy of Olive the Oiled Sea Otter

The Legacy of Olive the Oiled Sea Otter
Olive pup IMG 5580dfg 1024x683 The Legacy of Olive the Oiled Sea Otter

Joe Tomoleoni/USGS

The sea otter world lost a real ambassador to the species when Olive the Oiled Otter was found dead at the end of March 2015 due to a shark bite.

Olive is one of the success stories in rehabilitating an oiled sea otter.  In February 2009, she was found stranded at Sunset State Beach, in Santa Cruz County, California, having been oiled by a thick, tarry substance coming from a natural seep off the California coast.  Olive was about a year old at the time she was found.  Olive was given her name because olive oil was used to try and loosen up the heavy oil that she was covered in.  A dedicated team of state agencies and organizations were instrumental in Olive’s recovery, using a new protocol in washing oiled animals.  She was released back into the wild and was continually monitored, especially, of late, by California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, Colleen Young.  Olive not only survived and recovered, but went on to successfully give birth to and wean 3 confirmed pups.

Olive’s story took on great interest for the public, through a Facebook page ( ) and numerous media stories about her.

Friends of the Sea Otter is saddened by the news to have lost Olive, and we will never forget what she meant to sea otter recovery by demonstrating that we can successfully rehabilitate an oiled sea otter.