Similar to other species that in recent centuries experienced unregulated human exploitation, sea otters were extirpated throughout large portions of their historic range in the North Pacific. For most of the twentieth century, with cessation of the fur trade and because of concerted efforts at conservation, sea otters recovered much of their historic range and abundance. Late in the twentieth century, increased predation by killer whales in southwest Alaska drove sea otter populations to a few percentage points of their prior abundance, and one of the nation’s largest oil spills in south-central Alaska caused the death of several thousand animals and required more than two decades for recovery. In California, entanglement in fishing gear and environmental degradation, among other factors, have contributed to slow growth in sea otter abundance. We discuss the role of density dependence and spatial structuring of populations in reduced rates of sea otter recovery recently detected in the Northeast Pacific, and consider the potential effects of multiple low-level and cumulative threats on sea otter populations. The resilience demonstrated by sea otters over the past century will be tested in upcoming decades as human activities continue to degrade nearshore coastal areas of the North Pacific.
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