Meet the smallest ocean mammal with a huge appetite
There are 13 species of otter, over half of them vulnerable or endangered. One of the species struggling to survive is Enhydra lutris: the sea otter.
Found in the coastal waters of the North Pacific, they’re well-known for their endearing hand-holding. Groups of otters hold onto each other so that they don’t drift apart, with pups kept safe on their mothers until they’re old enough to swim and hunt.
Sea otters are a keystone species – a species with an important role in maintaining the structure of its ecosystem. They live above kelp forests, which provide the basis for huge ocean food webs. Due to a lack of blubber, the otters have a huge appetite and spend half of the day hunting for sea urchins and other kelp-eating creatures. By regulating species that feed on the kelp, they prevent the over-exploitation and destruction of the forests, and keep the ecosystem balanced.
To keep warm as they bob around in the water, the sea otter’s coat is made of up two layers that trap air for insulation. Unfortunately this soft, warm fur was extremely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries for hats and coats, leading to large-scale hunting of the animals. Hunting had a devastating effect on sea otter numbers; it’s estimated that in 1911, at the end of the commercial fur trade, there were as few as 2000 otters remaining (from an original global population of 150,000-300,000). Since then, other threats like oil spills (which prevent the otter’s coat from keeping them warm), parasites, chemical run-off from agriculture, and incidents with fishing boats and lines have posed further challenges. Sea otters have been listed as Endangered on the IUCN red list since 2000, but conservation efforts are giving them another chance.
Legislation like the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts of the 1970s has allowed the important creatures to be protected. Monitoring, rehabilitation and translocation programmes help to preserve existing populations, while orphaned pups fostered by surrogate mothers in captivity can learn the necessary skills to join the others in the wild. Thanks to these efforts, numbers are rising and World Otter Day is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the progress and raise awareness of what’s still to be done.
If you want to help preserve this important predator, there are simple changes you can make at home like using non-toxic cleaning products, reducing water waste and purchasing biodegradable or recyclable products. For a more hands-on approach, volunteer at a beach clean to remove plastics that marine animals like sea otters could ingest or get tangled in.
The Sea Otter Foundation and Trust raises awareness about the creatures, and funds research and conservation work – check out their website (www.seaotterfoundationtrust.org) where you can learn more and even adopt a sea otter!