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California Sea Otters: Population Recovery Continues at Slower Rate

Wildlife such as Sea Otters are both a Biodiversity Resource and a Tourism Asset for California

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Wildlife is both a Biodiversity Resource and a Tourism Asset for California

California’s southern sea otter, a threatened population on the Endangered Species list, continues to recover, but at a rate that appears to have slowed.

USGS scientists say the latest 3-year average (2,826 sea otters) was 0.3 percent higher than last year’s 3-year average, representing a slower rate of increase than they have seen in recent years.

For southern sea otters to be considered for removal from the Endangered Species list, the 3-year running averages would have to exceed 3,090 for 3 continuous years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southern Sea Otter Recovery Plan.

Differences in weather conditions, otter distribution and other factors contribute to the year-to-year variance in survey numbers.

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Sea Otter Research Methods

A standardized method to survey sea otters was developed by WERC scientists and put into use in 1982 in California. Survey procedures involve counting animals twice annually, in early autumn and late spring. Two-person teams use binoculars and spotting scopes to count individuals from accessible stretches of coastline and from fixed-wing aircraft in the remaining areas. The counts made from shore are plotted on maps and then entered into a spatial database. The aerial counts are entered directly into a geographic information system-linked database in the aircraft. The survey records the total otter numbers, the number of dependent pups, and the number of independents (adults and subadults), observed. These data, in conjunction with findings from several more in-depth studies provide the necessary information to assess female reproductive rates and changes in reproductive success of the California sea otter population through time.

The surveys, conducted cooperatively by scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey, California Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Monterey Bay Aquarium with the help of experienced volunteers, cover about 375 miles of California coast, from Half Moon Bay south to Santa Barbara. The information gathered will be used by federal and state wildlife agencies in making decisions about the management of this sea mammal.

Spring survey results are used as an indicator of the population trend of California sea otters. No single year's survey result is indicative of a population change, however. To reduce the influence of anomalously high or low counts during any particular year, three-year running averages of the survey results are also used to assess whether the population is growing or declining. Factors that can influence the count include viewing conditions, abundance and species composition of surface canopy kelp, observer experience, and distribution and movements of the animals.

For more information, contact Tim Tinker at 831-459-2357 or, or Brian Hatfield at 805-927-3893 or

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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