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Sea Otters Making Comeback Off Central, South Coasts But Sharks Impacting Population

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They once roamed the West Coast from Oregon to Mexico, until fur hunters decimated their population, driving them close to extinction.

For the last 40 years, the Southern Sea Otter has been trying to make a comeback, and they are close to being taken off the federally "threatened" list. But now nature, in the form of shark attacks, is hampering their efforts.

Southern Sea Otters are among the smallest marine mammals, weighing between 40 and 70 pounds. They have a very low fat level, and rely on water resistant fur to protect them from the elements.

Dr. Tim Tinker is a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He leads the USGS California Seat Otter Research program. He says their population was decimated by humans over centuries by fur hunters. 

The good news is that thanks to protections, the population has surged. It only covers a small percentage of their original footprint, but a just completed census shows there are more than 3100 of the sea otters. The numbers are close to being strong enough that the otters could be removed from “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service threshold number is, 3,090 otters. This year, 3186 were counted. If they can surpass 3,090 for another year, the agency will consider delisting.

But, here’s the wrinkle in all this. In 2016, the number was 3272, so the population dipped by 3%.. A number of things could be factors, like poor counting conditions. Tinker says it’s quite possible a big spike in other deaths due to shark attacks may be the issue. He  says the irony is Great Whites don’t eat the otters. If they bite them, it’s because they think they are food. Still, one big bite is usually fatal.

There are actually two otter populations. One is the one on the coast that’s dipped. The other is a separate population on San Nicholas Islands, which is reported to be doing well, with about a hundred otters. The island population is man-made. Decades ago, some were moved to the island in an effort to help save the species. Most of them quickly left, and migrated back to Northern California, but the few which stayed have multiplied.

Even though it’s been a long process, the otter’s recovery is being called a success effort, with the population growing from a low of about 50 to around 3,000 today. Those involved with the program say are looking forward to the day they are completely off the threatened list.