Sea otter population structure and ecology in Alaska

Arctic Research of the United States




Sea otters are the only fully marine otter. They share a common ancestry with the Old World land otters, but their route of dispersal to the New World is uncertain. The historic range of the species is along the northern Pacific Ocean rim, between central Baja California and the islands of northern Japan. Because they forage almost exclusively on bottom-dwelling marine invertebrates such as clams, snails, crabs, and sea urchins, they predominantly occur near shore. Their offshore distribution is limited by their diving ability; although they are capable of diving to more than 100 meters deep, most of their feeding takes place between the shoreline and depths of 40 meters. They are social animals, generally resting in protected bays or kelp forests in groups, commonly referred to as rafts. Because they are gregarious, possess a fine fur, and occur primarily near shore, they have been exploited by humans for as long as they have co-occupied coastal marine communities.

During the late Pleistocene, glacial advances and retreats in the northern latitudes likely influenced genetic exchange within the sea otter’s northern range. When the glaciers were at their maximum, ice sheets extended over large coastal areas, isolating sea otter populations and causing local extinctions. During periods of glacial retreat, sea otters likely recolonized the newly available habitats, allowing exchange of individuals and gene flow between populations.

Beginning in about 1750, sea otter populations underwent dramatic declines as a direct result of commercial harvest for their furs. Explorations by Vitus Bering led to the discovery of abundant sea otter populations in the Aleutian Islands. The early harvest, conducted by Russians with enslaved Aleut hunters, began in the eastern Aleutians. Eventually the harvest became multinational and contributed significantly to the exploration and settlement of the North Pacific coastline by Europeans. There were two distinct periods of harvest—one reaching its peak about 1800 and averaging about 15,000 per year and a second about 1870, averaging about 4,000 per year. The causes for this harvest pattern are unknown, but it may represent two distinct periods of overexploitation separated by a brief period of population recovery.

By 1890 the species had been eliminated throughout most of its range, persisting in small numbers at 13 isolated locations in California, Alaska, and Russia. The number of sea otters that survived the fur trade is unknown, but available data suggest that some remnant populations may have been as small as a few dozen individuals. In 1911, sea otters were afforded protection under the International Fur Seal Treaty, and populations apparently responded by gradually increasing in abundance. The rates of population recovery varied among locations, averaging 9% annually and ranging from 6 to 13%. The population at Amchitka Island in the central Aleutians had the highest growth rate among those surviving, apparently reaching carrying capacity by about 1950.

Efforts to aid the recovery of the species into the vast unoccupied habitats between California and Prince William Sound began in 1965. Sea otters from Amchitka and Prince William Sound were translocated to Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and several locations in southeastern Alaska. With the exception of Oregon, these translocations have resulted in the establishment of successful colonies. Population growth rates of translocated sea otters have been significantly greater than among remnant populations, averaging 21% and ranging from 18 to 24%. We don’t know why the growth rates of the remnant and translocated populations are so different, but it may be partly because of the abundant food and space available at the translocated sites.

The varying patterns of sea otter population decline and recovery provide a unique and powerful tool for studying the effects of historic reductions on populations, as well as how populations respond to varying environmental conditions. During the past decade, using molecular genetics, researchers have been trying to understand how sea otter populations might differ throughout the North Pacific and what effects population reductions and recovery have had on population genetics. Also, as a result of the varying degree of recovery among isolated populations, we have the opportunity to contrast life history attributes (such as condition, reproduction, and survival) among populations throughout their range. These contrasts may be useful in developing methods to assess the status of populations where traditional methods of surveying abundance are difficult and expensive.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
Journal Article
Sea otter population structure and ecology in Alaska
Series title:
Arctic Research of the United States
Year Published:
National Science Foundation
Publisher location:
Arlington, VA
Contributing office(s):
Alaska Science Center
5 p.
First page:
Last page:
United States