Highlights from the 11th Sea Otter Conservation Workshop

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

I recently attended and presented at the 11th biennial Sea Otter Conservation Workshop (the Workshop), hosted by the Seattle Aquarium. As the largest sea otter-focused meeting in the world, the Workshop brought together dozens of scientists, managers, and conservationists to share important information and research on sea otter conservation issues. Being new to this community, this was my first time attending the Workshop, and I had the privilege of meeting some of the most influential sea otter experts in the world. Here, I recount some of my highlights from the Workshop and discuss the importance of this meeting to the continued conservation and management of global sea otter populations.

Source: The Seattle Aquarium.

Sea otters represent one of the most successful species recovery stories in history. After facing near extinction at the close of the Maritime Fur Trade in 1911 (Kenyon 1969), they have made an impressive comeback due to intense conservation efforts. The species is no longer in such dire conditions, but some distinct populations are still considered at-risk due to their small numbers and persistent threats, such as oil spills or disease. We still have a ways to go until global sea otter populations are recovered, and collaboration across disciplines is needed for continued progress.

The Workshop provided the perfect means for this collaboration and sharing of information. Attendees were a mixture of scientists, managers, advocacy groups, zoos and aquarium staff, and graduate students. Presentations spanned a range of disciplines, including ecology, physiology, genetics, and animal husbandry, to name a few. On the first day of the Workshop, most presentations focused on sea otter ecology and management. The plenary speaker – Dr. Jim Estes (retired ecologist and University of California, Santa Cruz professor) – noted that one of the reasons we’ve had such success in sea otter recovery is due to our vast knowledge of their natural history and behavior. Much of this progress can be attributed to seminal work, such as Keyon’s 1969 report, which provides an extensive synthesis of several sea otter ecological and behavioral studies (Kenyon 1969). Beginning in the 1970’s, several other ecologists – such as David Duggins, Jim Bodkin, Tim Tinker, and Jim himself – expanded this understanding to complex trophic cascades, individual diet specialization, and population demographics.

Jim Estes and Tim Tinker. Source: Jim Estes.

These ecological studies have played an integral role in sea otter conservation, but other disciplines were and continue to be just as important. As the Workshop continued into the second and third days, presentations shifted their focus to physiology, veterinary medicine, and animal husbandry. Two of these speakers – who have played pivotal roles in these areas – are Dr. Melissa Miller (veterinarian specialist and pathologist with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife) and Dr. Mike Murray (director of veterinary services at the Monterey Bay Aquarium). Dr. Miller presented her years of work on understanding causes of mortality in wild southern sea otters in California. Her research showed that shark predation is a large source of mortality in the southern stock, but cardiac arrest, which has gained less attention, is also a large contributing factor.

Dr. Murray discussed his practice of caring for and studying the biology of captive sea otters. He provided an overview of some of the routine procedures (i.e. full body exams, oral surgeries, and radio transmitter implantation) his team conducts to assess and treat stranded wild otters, so they can be returned to the wild. Both presenters demonstrated how advances in veterinary medicine have helped us better understand the multitude of threats to sea otters in the wild, and what interventive measures can be taken to recover sick or injured otters so they can contribute to wild population recovery. By understanding how these threats are impacting sea otter health on an individual level, we can be better equipped to prevent population-wide consequences.

Dr. Melissa Miller conducting a sea otter necropsy. Source: California Department of Fish & Game.

Throughout the entire Workshop, experts with decades of experience presented their work. Yet, one of the most encouraging aspects of this meeting was that several graduate students also presented their research, including myself. In a way, listening to presenters both early and late in their careers gave us a glimpse into the past and future of sea otter conservation. Much of the work currently being conducted by graduate students addresses some of the most pressing and emerging issues (e.g. shark predation, plastic pollution, and diseases) in this field, but also builds off the great knowledge base acquired by many of those at the Workshop.

Perhaps even more encouraging was the level of collaboration and mentorship between graduate students and seasoned experts. Included in almost every graduate student’s acknowledgement section of their presentations, were the names of several Workshop attendees who either advised them or provided guidance on their research. These presentations were often followed up with further meetings between students and their mentors. These types of interactions really demonstrated how invested the sea otter community is in fostering the next generation of leaders in this field. This “passing of the mantel” is imperative to maintain knowledge between generations and to continue to make progress in sea otter conservation. As a graduate student, I greatly appreciated getting the opportunity to interact with and gain advice from many of these researchers, whom I’ve only read about in articles.

Source: Bay Nature.

To summarize my experience, it became clear how important this Workshop was to the broader sea otter conservation community. The Workshop provided the perfect venue for collaboration amongst experts, as well as mentorship of upcoming leaders in the field. It’s important to recognize the great progress and strides the community has made already in understanding the complex lives of sea otters. Sea otters have not recovered everywhere. Therefore, we need to continue to acquire knowledge across all disciplines if we are to make progress in the future, especially as new threats and issues emerge. It will take a village.

Literature Cited:

Kenyon, K. W. 1969. The sea otter in the eastern Pacific Ocean. North American Fauna. 68. 352pp.

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