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Interview with Andy Johnson from Monterey Bay Aquarium    

        Estimates are there were 16-20,000 southern sea otters in the early 1700s, ranging from northern California south to Baja. By the early 1900s they had been so thoroughly hunted for their extraordinary fur that they were thought to be extinct. Miraculously, a raft of about 60 otters survived off the Big Sur California coast, however, and with extensive protection and support this group has parented the roughly 2,000 southern sea otters swimming off the coast today. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Research And Conservation Program (SORAC) was formed to help ensure the southern sea otter's continued survival. This is accomplished through rehabilitation (rescuing and rehabilitating otters with the aim of returning them to the wild), research including census and mortality analysis, and development of zoological programs.


Champions of the Underdog: Trying to Repopulate the Southern Sea Otter


Monterey Bay Aquarium

On August 7, 1998, OTTERNET interviewed Andy Johnson, Director of SORAC, to better understand the challenges his group is facing.

OTTERNET: Thank you for taking the time to meet with us, Andy. To dive right in, how many sea otters has SORAC rehabilitated since beginning the program in 1984 ?

Mr. Johnson: I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has taken in 156 sea otters to-date, at an accelerated rate most recently. We cared for 16 otters in 1996, 12-14 in 1997, and have already seen 18 to-date this year. In fact we are currently at our maximum capacity of caring for 10 otters currently and have had to call on an alliance of partner institutions, including the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, to handle some overload.

OTTERNET: That sounds like a lot given there are only about 2,114 otters in the 1998 census. What are your criteria for taking in an otter ?

Mr. Johnson: We will care for any otter in distress if they are found (near shore) and we have the capacity.

OTTERNET: What do you think is causing the increase in otters coming in ? It seems to coincide with the large decrease in sea otter pups from the recent census, down to 159 from 310 in 1997.

Mr. Johnson: Yes they do appear to be related. In fact we have seen a dramatic rise in sea otter deaths this year, with more than 150 beached sea otter carcasses year-to-date (excluding those washed out to sea) ! We believe one major impact has been the climatic changes this year from El Nino. In early 1983 we also saw a large drop in the spring sea otter pup census after a similar climatic change. Fortunately, this did not eliminate births but did delay them, as the Fall pup census in 1983 rose sharply. We hope this year's Fall pup count increases as well.

Aside from the climatic changes, southern sea otters are fighting disease, driven in part by contaminants in the water and food system, and potential dangers due to fish netting and lobster trapping, and threats from aggressors such as sharks and man. We have seen some otters that have been shot, and have documented several deaths due to boat strikes. In fact, we recently performed surgery on a 4 year old otter to repair severe skeletal injuries after he was hit by a boat, an increasing trauma related root cause.

OTTERNET: This does not sound like good news for otters. It sounds like a lot of the otters you get are in bad shape, and those that you can help are often at risk when released. How do you measure success and how many of the sea otters treated are successfully returned to the sea ?

Mr. Johnson: Our criteria for a successful treatment would be an otter who survives 2 weeks on its own. Of the 156 we have treated to-date, some do not survive very long and others must be euthanized. Of the approximately 50 otters we have released, 31 have met our criteria for success. We implant radio transmitters and usually release within the Monterey Bay area so we can carefully track their status. We have later picked up a number of otters that were not displaying good long-term survival skills and placed them in a zoological setting given threats to their ongoing survival.

SORAC has been quite successful in developing rehabilitation programs and that allow us to better understand the care needs for sea otters. This is critical for our response in the event of one of the largest risks to the sea otter - an oil spill. Our research and activities also builds knowledge to help continue to support the southern sea otter population, such as determining immediate causes of mortality (the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison WI now takes every 4th fresh-dead otter for formal mortality assessment) and relocating sea otters who cannot return to the wild to good homes in a zoological setting.

OTTERNET: Is there an attempt to relocate sea otter populations to less populated areas to reduce mortality risk ?

Mr. Johnson: Yes, there have been attempts. The largest was an effort to relocate sea otters to San Nicolas Island off southern California. The idea was to prevent potential extinction if there was a major oil spill in northern California along the otter's coastal range. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved over 100 otters down there, but few remained. Some returned to their previous homes, some perished, and others moved to areas which conflict with fisheries. This has become extremely sensitive lately as about 100 otters have entered into a so-called "no-otter" zone. These otters are almost certainly not from the translocated group, but made that southern California area their home and the fisheries folks are very upset nonetheless.

OTTERNET: What are your resources to complete all of the SORAC activities ?

Mr. Johnson: We are supported by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and have 4 full-time and 4 part-time rehabilitation professionals, a research coordinator, and a research intern. We supplement our staff with approximately 50 volunteers who help, for example, with the 24-hour around-the-clock care of our sea otter pups and post release tracking. Note that Roscoe, Hailey and Goldie, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's resident otters, are cared for by a separate team of Aquarium specialists who we interface with a great deal as well.

OTTERNET: What background do you and your staff have ?

Mr. Johnson: We have varied backgrounds. I have served as Supervisor of Animal Care at Sea World in San Diego, as Curator of Marine Mammals at the Vancouver Aquarium, and as a private consultant to zoos and aquariums. My college background was entirely unrelated to marine biology or animal care. Other staff have experience at other zoological facilities, and many have marine science degrees.

OTTERNET: In closing, how would you advise our online readers to help sea otters ?

Mr. Johnson: I would recommend four key ways everyone can help:

  1. Do not approach otters - they are not pets or friendly animals. They are wild.
  2. Instruct others not to approach otters. If seen, keep a distance from them. If an otter changes its behavior because a human approaches it too closely, it is a violation of federal law.
  3. Help to reduce marine pollution - otters are highly susceptible to contaminants and chemicals we put into the ocean.
  4. Support oil spill controls - oil spills offer the single largest risk for extinction of the southern sea otter.

OTTERNET: Thank you so much for your time, Andy !


For more information on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program visit their web site !


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