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.

Census Table11 1015x1024 Counting Noses: Not an Easy Feat

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.

New Bill Takes Aim at Sea Otters!

takeaction New Bill Takes Aim at Sea Otters!

On February 15th, Representative Gallegly (R – Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties) introduced H.R. 4043, a bill that represents a full step backwards in sea otter conservation. Though deceptively titled as legislation that promotes the recovery of the threatened southern sea otter, the “Military Readiness and Southern Sea Otter Conservation Act“ would in fact undermine the current process of ending the antiquated no-otter zone that was established in 1987. The no-otter zone prohibited sea otters from entering coastal waters south of Point Conception (near Santa Barbara), but has failed in its purpose and is currently undergoing the process to be terminated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by this December.

H.R. 4043 requires that termination of the no-otter zone be stalled again while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service complete an “Ecosystem Management Plan.” Under H.R. 4043, an Ecosystem Management Plan would have to “[ensure] the commercial harvest of shellfish fisheries at levels approximating current harvests.” Shellfish harvests in southern California have declined because of over-harvesting by the same groups that would benefit from this bill by requiring a plan that would maintain their current harvest levels. This requirement is essentially a handout to the commercial shellfish industry and a license to continue practicing their irresponsible harvests.

The Ecosystem Management Plan would also have to ensure the recovery of the endangered white and black abalone, though scientists have concluded over and over again that the decline of these species was not due to sea otters. Indeed, the two species can and do co-exist. Because it conveniently supports their goal of opposing sea otter range expansion, the shellfish industry continues to promulgate the unproven belief that otters are the sole cause of the white and black abalone’s decline.

Sea otters, once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were nearly eliminated from California in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only in the past few decades has the species begun to recover, though the recovery has not been without its struggles. The latest survey found the population had declined by 3.6% to 2,711 animals. There is general consensus that, in order for the species to confront the varied obstacles it faces (from pollution and disease to food limitation), it must be allowed to naturally expand its range.

Sea otters should be allowed to swim freely, unobstructed by special interests. H.R. 4043 is no more than a veiled tactic aimed at obstructing the termination of the no-otter zone and securing a restriction on the sea otter’s natural range while giving a handout to the shellfish fisheries. Halting natural range expansion would defeat the well-studied environmental benefits, economic gains and jobs associated with tourism, sea otters, and a balanced and healthy ecosystem. H.R. 4043 is bad for otters, bad for jobs, and bad for the environment. It’s time to stand up to the obstructionists and end the no-otter zone.

Write your representative to oppose H.R. 4043.

Sea Otter Conservation Coalition Endorses Renewal of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Efforts to Recover California’s Southern Sea Otter

Feds Propose to End the No-Otter Zone

picture 51 Sea Otter Conservation Coalition Endorses Renewal of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Efforts to Recover Californias Southern Sea Otter

MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA (Aug. 17, 2011) – A coalition of organizations welcomed news that
California’s struggling sea otters may soon get a big boost thanks to a draft plan released by
federal wildlife officials today that would end a controversial “no-otter” zone on the California
coast and allow the marine mammals to re-colonize their traditional habitat.

California sea otters are protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In
1986, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) implemented a translocation program that
removed otters from the shoreline of Southern California and relocated them to San Nicolas
Island, with the hope of establishing a second viable population that would protect the species in
the event of any environmental disaster. At the same time, FWS implemented a “no-otter” zone
south of Point Conception in which otters would be removed and transported back north of the
zone’s boundary. Translocation failed to promote otter recovery, and FWS subsequently
determined that enforcement of the “no-otter” zone violates the ESA by jeopardizing the species’
recovery due to harm to the species during transport. FWS has long recognized that natural
range expansion is necessary to achieve species recovery for the California sea otter.

For the next 60 days, FWS is soliciting public input on the proposal before making a final
decision. Conservation groups that have been focused on efforts to aid the otter’s recovery were
quick to commend FWS’ proposal to end the translocation program and allow for the species’
natural range expansion.

Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Sea Otter, The Humane Society of the United States, and
the Monterey Bay Aquarium, issued the following statement:

“Today is a good day for California sea otters. We support an end to the ineffective and harmful
translocation program and “no-otter” management zone. For sea otters to have a real shot at
recovery, they must be allowed to return to their historic range off the coast of Southern
California. If sea otters thrive again throughout their historic range, the entire marine ecosystem
will benefit.”


Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their
natural communities. With more than 1 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a
leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to

For more information, visit Contact: Jim Curland, Marine Program
Associate, at (831) 726-9010 or

Founded in 1968 and with over 4,000 members worldwide, Friends of the Sea Otter advances the conservation of sea otters by educating the public, supporting research, and advocating for the protection of the sea otter at the local, state, and federal level. Contact:Jason Lutterman, Program Manager, at (831) 915-3275 or

The Humane Society of the United States is the nation’s largest animal protection organization –backed by 11 million Americans, or one of every 28. For more than a half-century, The HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education and hands-on programs. Celebrating animals and confronting cruelty — 

On the web at Kristen Eastman, at (240) 654-2667 or

The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the oceans. Through its award-winning exhibits, education programs, conservation research initiatives and ocean policy advocacy, it reaches millions of people and advances progress toward creating a future with healthy oceans.

Contact: Andrew Johnson, Program Manager, Sea Otter Research and Conservation, at (831) 648-7934 or

Sea Otter Bill Passes House!

Friends of the Sea Otter applauds the passage of Sea Otter Research and Recovery Bill by House!


House Acts to Protect Marine Turtles, Sea Otters By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Filed at 8:24 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) — The southern sea otter and the marine turtle would get federal assistance in their struggles to survive under bills the House passed Tuesday.

The House voted 316-107 to approve $5 million a year over the next five years for research and recovery programs run by the Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey for the southern sea otters along the coast of California.

In 1977, the southern sea otter was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Currently there are about 2,800 of the marine mammals along the California coast.

Under the bill, experts would study and seek to mitigate causes of high sea otter mortality, which are thought to include malnutrition, shark attacks, entanglement in fishing gear, boat strikes, shooting and proliferation of harmful algae.

”If the sea otters are dying, then something else is happening that is very keen to the coastal near-shore environment that affects the well-being of mankind,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., sponsor of the legislation.

The marine turtle bill extends for five years a program that also provides $5 million a year to save the reptiles, which have also been endangered by the destruction of nesting habitats, poaching, entanglement in marine debris, ship strikes and pollution.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., passed 354-72. Both bills now go to the Senate.

To Track and the Bill and its progresss, visit: