GEMM Lab 2018: A Year in the Life

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As 2018 draws to a close, it is gratifying to step back and appreciate the accomplishments of the past year. For all members of the GEMM Lab, 2018 has certainly been one for the books! Here are some of our highlights for your holiday enjoyment.

We conducted fieldwork to collect new data in multiple seasons, multiple hemispheres, and across oceans. For the first time, GEMM Lab members joined the Northern California Current Ecosystem cruises aboard NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada as marine mammal observers—Florence in February, Alexa in May, and me in September.

Summertime in the Pacific Northwest brings the gray whales to the Oregon Coast. The drone-flying, poop-scooping, plankton-trapping team of Leigh, Todd, Leila, Joe, and Sharon took to the water for the third year to investigate the health of this gray whale population. It was a successful field season, ending with 72 fecal samples collected! Visiting students joined our experienced members to shadow the gray whale fieldwork—Julia Stepanuk and Alejandro Fernandez Ajo came from across the country to hop on board with us for a bit. Friendship and collaboration were built quickly in a little boat chasing after whale poop, bonding over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Another GEMM Lab team tracked the gray whales from the cliff in Port Orford. Lisa Hildebrand joined us as the GEMM Lab’s newest graduate student, and immediately led a team of interns on Oregon’s southern coast to track gray whale movements and sample their prey from a trusty research kayak.

The summer 2018 gray whale foraging ecology team, affectionately known as “team whale storm”, at the Port Orford Field Station.

Rachael observed seabirds from Yaquina Head in May and June, where the colony of common murres had the highest reproductive success in 10 years! Then she left the summertime in July to travel to the other end of the world, braving winter in the remote South Atlantic to study South American fur seals in the Falkland Islands.

Dr. Rachael Orben and Dr. Alistair Bayliss looking out towards the fur seals. Photo: Kayleigh Jones

In New Caledonia, Solene and a research team ventured to Antigonia Seamount and Orne Bank to study the use of these offshore areas by breeding humpback whales. They collected numerous biopsy samples and successfully deployed satellite tags. Solene was also selected to receive the Louis Herman research scholarship to continue studying humpback whale movement and diving behavior around seamounts.

Sorting biopsy samples during a successful expedition to study humpback whales around remote seamounts in the South Pacific.

Beyond fieldwork, our members have been busily disseminating our findings. In July, Leigh and I traveled to Wellington to present our latest findings on New Zealand blue whales to scientists, managers, politicians, industry representatives, and advocacy groups. Because of our documentation of a unique New Zealand blue whale population, which was published earlier this year, the New Zealand government has proposed to create a Marine Mammal Sanctuary for the protection of blue whales. This is quite a feat, considering blue whales were classified as only “migrant” in New Zealand waters prior to our work. Fueled by flat whites in wintery Wellington, we navigated government buildings, discussing blue whale distribution patterns, overlap with the oil and gas industry, what we now know based on our latest analyses, and what we consider to be the most pressing gaps in our knowledge.

Dr. Leigh Torres and Dawn Barlow in front of Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand following the presentation of their recent findings.

Alexa spent the summer and fall in San Diego, where she collaborated with researchers at NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center on her study of about the health of bottlenose dolphins off the California coast. Her time down south has been productive and we look forward to having her back in Oregon with us to round out the second year of her PhD program.

In the fall, Dom and Leigh participated in the first ever Oregon Sea Otter Status of Knowledge Symposium. With growing interest in a potential sea otter reintroduction, the symposium brought together a range of experts – including scientists, managers, and tribes – to discuss what we currently know about sea otters in other regions and how this knowledge could be applied to an Oregon reintroduction effort. Dom was one of many speakers at this event, and gave a well-received talk on Oregon’s previous sea otter reintroduction attempt and brief discussion on his thesis research. Over the next year, Dom not only plans to finish his thesis, but also to join an interdisciplinary research team to further investigate other social, genetic, and ecological implications of a potential sea otter reintroduction.

Sea otter mom and pup. Source: Hakai Magazine.
2018-19 OSU NRT Cohort. Source: Oregon State University.

Several GEMM Lab members reached academic milestones this year. Rachael was promoted to Assistant Professor in the spring! She now leads the Seabird Oceanography Lab, and remains involved in multiple projects studying seabirds and pinnipeds all over the world. Leila passed her PhD qualifying exams and advanced to candidacy in the spring, a major accomplishment toward completing her doctoral degree. I successfully defended my MS degree in June, and my photo was added to our wall gallery of GEMM Lab graduates. I won’t be leaving the GEMM Lab anytime soon, however, as I will be continuing my research on New Zealand blue whales as a PhD student. The GEMM Lab welcomed a new MS student in the summer—Lisa Hildebrand will be studying gray whale foraging ecology on the Oregon Coast. Welcome, Lisa! In early December, Solene successfully defended her PhD, officially becoming Dr. Derville. Congratulations to all on these milestones, and congratulations to Leigh for continuing to grow such a successful lab and guiding us all toward these accomplishments.

Dawn Barlow answers questions during her M.Sc. defense seminar.
Dr. Solene Derville and co-supervisors Dr. Claire Garrigue and Dr. Leigh Torres after a successful PhD Defense!

Perhaps you’re looking to do some reading over the holidays? The GEMM Lab has been publishing up a storm this year! The bulletin board outside our lab is overflowing with new papers. Summarizing our work and sharing our findings with the scientific community is a critical piece of what we do. The 21 new publications this year in 14 scientific journals include contributions from Leigh (13), Rachael (3), Solene (3), Leila (6), Florence (1), Amanda (1), Erin (1), Courtney (1), Theresa (1), and myself (3). Scroll down to the end of this post to see the complete list!

If you are reading this, thank you for your support of our lab, our members, and our work. Our successes come not only from our individual determination, but more importantly from our support of one another and the support of our communities. We look forward to what’s ahead in 2019. Happy holidays from the GEMM Lab!

The whole GEMM Lab (lab dogs included) gathered for an evening playing “Evolution” at Leigh’s house.

Barlow, D. R., Torres, L. G., Hodge, K. B., Steel, D., Baker, C. S., Chandler, T. E., Bott, N., Constantine, R., Double, M. C., Gill, P., Glasgow, D., Hamner, R. M., Lilley, C., Ogle, M., Olson, P. A., Peters, C., Stockin, K. A., Tessaglia-Hymes, C. T., & Klinck, H. (2018). Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endangered Species Research36, 27-40.

Barlow, D. R., Fournet, M., & Sharpe, F. (2018). Incorporating tides into the acoustic ecology of humpback whales. Marine Mammal Science.

Baylis, A. M., Tierney, M., Orben, R. A., Staniland, I. J., & Brickle, P. (2018). Geographic variation in the foraging behaviour of South American fur seals. Marine Ecology Progress Series596, 233-245.

Bishop, A., Brown, C., Rehberg, M., Torres, L., & Horning, M. (2018). Juvenile Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus) utilization distributions in the Gulf of Alaska. Movement ecology6(1), 6.

Burnett, J. D., Lemos, L., Barlow, D., Wing, M. G., Chandler, T., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Estimating morphometric attributes of baleen whales with photogrammetry from small UASs: A case study with blue and gray whales. Marine Mammal Science.

Cardoso, M. D., Lemos, L. S., Roges, E. M., de Moura, J. F., Tavares, D. C., Matias, C. A. R., … & Siciliano, S. (2018). A comprehensive survey of Aeromonas sp. and Vibrio sp. in seabirds from southeastern Brazil: outcomes for public health. Journal of applied microbiology124(5), 1283-1293.

Derville, S., Torres, L. G., Iovan, C., & Garrigue, C. (2018). Finding the right fit: Comparative cetacean distribution models using multiple data sources and statistical approaches. Diversity and Distributions24(11), 1657-1673.

Derville, S., Torres, L. G., & Garrigue, C. (2018). Social segregation of humpback whales in contrasted coastal and oceanic breeding habitats. Journal of Mammalogy99(1), 41-54.

Hann, C. H., Stelle, L. L., Szabo, A., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Obstacles and Opportunities of Using a Mobile App for Marine Mammal Research. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information7(5), 169.

Holdman, A. K., Haxel, J. H., Klinck, H., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Acoustic monitoring reveals the times and tides of harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) distribution off central Oregon, USA. Marine Mammal Science.

Kirchner, T., Wiley, D. N., Hazen, E. L., Parks, S. E., Torres, L. G., & Friedlaender, A. S. (2018). Hierarchical foraging movement of humpback whales relative to the structure of their prey. Marine Ecology Progress Series607, 237-250.

Moura, J. F., Tavares, D. C., Lemos, L. S., Acevedo-Trejos, E., Saint’Pierre, T. D., Siciliano, S., & Merico, A. (2018). Interspecific variation of essential and non-essential trace elements in sympatric seabirds. Environmental pollution242, 470-479.

Moura, J. F., Tavares, D. C., Lemos, L. S., Silveira, V. V. B., Siciliano, S., & Hauser-Davis, R. A. (2018). Variation in mercury concentration in juvenile Magellanic penguins during their migration path along the Southwest Atlantic Ocean. Environmental Pollution238, 397-403.

Orben, R. A., Kokubun, N., Fleishman, A. B., Will, A. P., Yamamoto, T., Shaffer, S. A., Takahashi, A., & Kitaysky, A. S. (2018). Persistent annual migration patterns of a specialist seabird. Marine Ecology Progress Series593, 231-245.

Orben, R. A., Connor, A. J., Suryan, R. M., Ozaki, K., Sato, F., & Deguchi, T. (2018). Ontogenetic changes in at-sea distributions of immature short-tailed albatrosses Phoebastria albatrus. Endangered Species Research35, 23-37.

Pickett, E. P., Fraser, W. R., Patterson‐Fraser, D. L., Cimino, M. A., Torres, L. G., & Friedlaender, A. S. (2018). Spatial niche partitioning may promote coexistence of Pygoscelis penguins as climate‐induced sympatry occurs. Ecology and Evolution8(19), 9764-9778.

Siciliano, S., Moura, J. F., Tavares, D. C., Kehrig, H. A., Hauser-Davis, R. A., Moreira, I., Lavandier, R., Lemos, L. S., & Quinete, N. S. (2018). Legacy Contamination in Estuarine Dolphin Species From the South American Coast. In Marine Mammal Ecotoxicology (pp. 95-116). Academic Press.

Sullivan, F. A., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Assessment of vessel disturbance to gray whales to inform sustainable ecotourism. The Journal of Wildlife Management82(5), 896-905.

Sztukowski, L. A., Cotton, P. A., Weimerskirch, H., Thompson, D. R., Torres, L. G., Sagar, P. M., Knights, A. M., Fayet, A. L., & Votier, S. C. (2018). Sex differences in individual foraging site fidelity of Campbell albatross. Marine Ecology Progress Series601, 227-238.

Torres, L. G., Nieukirk, S. L., Lemos, L., & Chandler, T. E. (2018). Drone up! Quantifying whale behavior from a new perspective improves observational capacity. Frontiers in Marine Science5.

Yates, K. L., Bouchet, P. J., Caley, M. J., Mengersen, K., Randin, C. F., Parnell, S., … & Sequeira, A. M. M. (2018). Outstanding challenges in the transferability of ecological models. Trends in ecology & evolution.


Oregon Sea Otter Status of Knowledge Symposium

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

Over the past year, the GEMM Lab has been investigating the ecological factors associated with a potential sea otter reintroduction to Oregon. A potential reintroduction is not only of great interest to our lab, but also to several other researchers, managers, tribes, and organizations in the state. With growing interest, this idea is really starting to gain momentum. However, the best path forward to making this idea a reality is somewhat unknown, and will no doubt take a lot of time and effort from multiple groups.

In an effort to catalyze this process, the Elakha Alliance – led by Bob Bailey – organized the Oregon Sea Otter Status of Knowledge Symposium earlier this month in Newport, OR. The purpose of this symposium was to share information, research, and lessons learned about sea otters in other regions. Speakers – primarily scientists, managers, and graduate students – flew in from all over the U.S. and the Canadian west coast to share their expertise and discuss various factors that must be considered before any reintroduction efforts begin. Here, I review some of the key takeaways from those discussions.

Source: The Elakha Alliance

To start the meeting, Dr. Anne Salomon – an associate professor from Simon Fraser University – and Kii’iljuus Barbara Wilson – a Haida Elder – gave an overview of the role of sea otters in nearshore ecosystems and their significance to First Nations in British Columbia. Hearing these perspectives not only demonstrated the various ecological effects – both direct and indirect – of sea otters, but it also illustrated their cultural connection to indigenous people and the role tribes can play (and currently do play in British Columbia) in co-managing sea otters. In Oregon, we need to be aware of all the possible effects sea otters may have on our ecosystems and acknowledge the opportunity we have to restore these cultural connections to Oregon’s indigenous people, such as the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

Source: The Elakha Alliance and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

The symposium also involved several talks on the recovery of sea otter populations in other regions, as well as current limitations to their population growth. Dr. Lilian Carswell and Dr. Deanna Lynch – sea otter and marine conservation coordinators with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – and Dr. Jim Bodkin – a sea otter ecologist – provided these perspectives. Interestingly, not all stocks are recovering at the same rate and each population faces slightly different threats. In California, otter recovery is slowed by lack of available food and mortality due to investigative shark bites, which prevents range expansion. In other regions, such as Washington, the population appears to be growing rapidly and lack of prey and shark bite-related mortality appear to be less important. However, this population does suffer from parasitic-related mortality. The major takeaway from these recovery talks is that threats can be localized and site-specific. In considering a reintroduction to Oregon, it may be prudent to investigate if any of these threats and population growth limitations exist along our coastline as they could decrease the potential for sea otters to reestablish.

Source: The Seattle Aquarium and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Dr. Shawn Larson – a geneticist and ecologist from the Seattle Aquarium – gave a great overview of the genetic research that has been conducted for historical (pre-fur trade) Oregon sea otter populations. She explained that historical Oregon populations were genetically-similar to both southern and northern populations, but there appeared to be a “genetic gradient” where sea otters near the northern Oregon coast were more similar to northern populations – ranging to Alaska – and otters from the southern Oregon coast were more similar to southern populations – ranging to California. Given this historic genetic gradient, reintroducing a mixture of sea otters – subsets from contemporary northern and southern stocks – should be considered in a future Oregon reintroduction effort. Source-mixing could increase genetic diversity and may more-closely resemble genetic diversity levels found in the original Oregon population.

At the end of the meeting, an expert panel – including Dr. Larson, Dr. Bodkins, Dr. Lynch, and Dr. Carswell – provided their recommendations on ways to better inform this process. To keep this brief, I’ll discuss the top three recommendations I found most intriguing and important.

  1. Gain a better understanding of sea otter social behavior. Sea otters have strong social bonds, and previous reintroductions have failed because relocated individuals returned to their capture sites to rejoin their source populations. While this site fidelity behavior is relatively understood, we know less about the driving mechanisms – such as age or sex – of those behaviors. Having a sound understanding of these behaviors and their mechanisms could help to identify those which may hinder reestablishment following a reintroduction.
  2. When anticipating the impacts of sea otters on ecosystems, investigate the benefits too. When we think of impacts, we typically think of costs. However, there are documented benefits of sea otters, such as increasing species diversity (Estes & Duggins 1995, Lee et al. 2016). Identifying these benefits – as well as to people – would more completely demonstrate their importance.
  3. Investigate the human social factors and culture in Oregon relative to sea otters, such as perceptions of marine predators. Having a clear understanding of people’s attitudes toward marine predators – particularly marine mammals – could help managers better anticipate and mitigate potential conflicts and foster co-existence between otters and people.
Source: Paul Malcolm

While much of the symposium was focused on learning from experts in other regions, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the great talks given by a few researchers in Oregon – including Sara Hamilton (OSU doctoral student), Dr. Roberta Hall (OSU emeritus professor), Hannah Wellman (University of Oregon doctoral student), and myself. Individually, we spoke about the work that has already been done and is currently being done on this issue – including understanding bull kelp ecology, studying sea otter archaeological artifacts, and a synthesis of the first Oregon translocation attempt. Collectively, our talks provided some important context for everyone else in the room and demonstrated that we are working to make this process as informed as possible for managers. Oregon has yet to determine if they will move forward with a sea otter reintroduction and what that path forward will look like. However, given this early interest – as demonstrated by the symposium – we, as researchers, have a great opportunity to help guide this process and provide informative science.


Estes, J. A. and D. O. Duggins. 1995. Sea otters and kelp forests in Alaska: generality and variation in a community ecological paradigm. Ecological Monographs. 65: 75-100.

Lee, L. C., Watson, J. C., Trebilco, R., and A. K. Salomon. 2016. Indirect effects and prey behavior mediate interactions between an endangered prey and recovering predator. Ecosphere. 7(12).

Oregon sea otter reintroduction: opinions, perspectives, and theories

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

Species reintroductions can be hotly contested issues because they can negatively impact other species, ecosystems, and society, as well as failing, altogether. The uncertainty of their outcomes forces stakeholder groups to form their own opinions on whether it’s a good idea to proceed with a reintroduction. When you have several groups with conflicting values and views, managers need to focus on the information most important for them to make a well-informed decision on whether to pursue a reintroduction.

As researchers, we can play an important role by carefully considering and addressing these views through our research, if the appropriate data is available. Despite being in the early days of our study on the potential sea otter reintroduction to Oregon, we have already heard several perspectives regarding its potential success, the type of research we should do, and if sea otters should be brought back to Oregon. Here, I present some of the most interesting and relevant opinions, perspectives, and theories I’ve heard regarding this reintroduction idea.

Source: Suzi Eszterhas

The first reintroduction failed because of X, Y, and Z.

From 1970-1971, managers translocated 93 sea otters to Oregon in a reintroduction effort (Jameson et al. 1982). However, in a matter of 5-6 years, all sea otters disappeared, and the effort was considered a failure. Researchers have theorized that sea otters left Oregon due to a lack of suitable habitat and prey, or to return home to sites from which they were captured. Others have reasoned that managers should have introduced southern sea otters instead of northern sea otters, suggesting one subspecies’ genetic pre-disposition may improve their chance for survival.

Knowing the reasons for this failure may help managers avoid these causes in a future reintroduction attempt and increase its chance of success. We, as scientists, can also gain insight from knowing these causes because this may help us better tailor our research to potentially investigate whether those causes still pose a threat to sea otters during a second attempt. Unfortunately, we lack concrete evidence on what exactly caused this failure, but we can still work to test some these theories.

Source: Mike Baird.

An otter is an otter, no matter where you put it.

There is evidence that northern and southern sea otters are genetically distinct, to a certain degree (Valentine et al. 2008, Larson et al. 2012), and hypotheses have been put forward that the two subspecies may be behaviorally- and ecologically-distinct, too. Studies have shown that northern and southern sea otters have different sized and shaped skulls and teeth, which researchers hypothesize may be a specialized foraging adaptation for consuming different prey species (Campbell & Santana 2017, Timm-Davis et al. 2015). This view suggests that each subspecies has developed unique traits to adapt to the environmental conditions specific to their current ranges. Therefore, when considering which subspecies to bring to Oregon, managers should reintroduce the subspecies with traits better-suited to cope with the types of habitat, prey assemblages, and oceanographic conditions specific to Oregon.

However, other scientists hold the opposite view, and argue that “an otter is an otter” no matter where you put it. This perspective suggests that both subspecies have an equal chance at surviving in any type of suitable habitat because all otters behave in similar ways. Therefore, ecologically, it may not matter which subspecies managers bring to Oregon.

Source: Trover

Oregon doesn’t have enough sea otter habitat.

Kelp is considered important sea otter habitat. In areas with high sea otter densities, such as central and southern California, kelp forests are persistent throughout the year. However, in Oregon, our kelp primarily consists of bull kelp – a slightly more fragile species compared to the durable giant kelp in California. In winter, this bull kelp gets dislodged during intense storms, resulting in seasonal changes in kelp availability. Managers worry that this seasonality could reduce the amount of suitable habitat, to the point where Oregon may not be able to support sea otters.

Yet, we know sea otters used to exist here; therefore, we can assume there must have been some suitable habitat that may persist today. Furthermore, sea otters use a range of habitats, including estuaries, bays, and reefs (Laidre et al. 2009, Lafferty & Tinker 2014, Kvitek et al. 1988). Therefore, even during times when kelp is less abundant, sea otters could use these other forms of habitat along the Oregon coast. Luckily, we have the spatial tools and data to assess how much, where, and when we have suitable habitat, and I will specifically address this in my thesis.

They’ll eat everything!

Sea otters are famous for their voracious appetites for benthic invertebrates, some of which are of commercial and recreational importance to nearshore fisheries. In some cases, sea otters have significantly reduced prey densities, such as sea urchins and Dungeness crab (Garshelis & Garshelis 1984, Estes & Palmisano 1974). However, without a formal analysis, it’s difficult to know if sea otters will have similar impacts on Oregon’s nearshore species, as well as at spatial scale these impacts will occur and whether our fisheries will be affected. We can predict where sea otters are likely to occur based on the presence of suitable habitat, but foraging impacts could be more localized or widespread across sea otter’s entire potential range. To better anticipate these impacts, managers will need an understanding of how much sea otters eat, where foraging could occur based on the availability of prey, and where sea otters and fisheries are likely to interact. I will also address this concern in my thesis.

Source: Suzi Eszterhas

To reintroduce or not to reintroduce? That is the question.

I have found that many scientists and managers have strong opinions on whether it’s appropriate to bring sea otters back to Oregon. Those who argue against a reintroduction often highlight many of the theories already mentioned here – lack of habitat, potential impacts to fisheries, and genetics. While other opponents provided more logistical and practical justifications, such as confounding politics, as well as difficulties in getting public support and regulatory permission to move a federally-listed species.

In contrast, proponents of this idea argue that a reintroduction could augment the recovery of the species by providing additional habitat for the species to rebound to pre-exploitation levels, as well as allowing for increased gene flow between southern and northern sea otter populations. Other proponents have brought up potential benefits to humans, such restoring ecosystem services, providing an economic boost through tourism, or preserving tribal and cultural connections. Such benefits may be worth attempting another reintroduction effort.

As you can see, there are several opinions and perspectives related to a potential sea otter reintroduction to Oregon. While it’s important to consider all opinions, managers still need facts to make key decisions. Scientists can play an important role in providing this information, so managers can make a well-informed decision. Oregon managers have not yet decided whether to proceed with a sea otter reintroduction, but our lab is working to provide them with reliable and accurate science, so they may form their own opinions and arrive at their own decision.


Estes, J. A. and J. F. Palmisano. 1974. Sea otters: the role in structuring nearshore communities. Science. 185: 1058-1060.

Garshelis, D. L. and J. A. Garshelis. 1984. Movements and management of sea otters in Alaska. The Journal of Wildlife Management. 48: 665-678.

Jameson, R. J, Kenyon, K. W., Johnson, A. M., and H. M. Wight. 1982. History and status of translocated sea otter populations in North America. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 10: 100-107.

Lafferty, K. D., and M. T. Tinker. 2014. Sea otters are recolonizing southern California in fits and starts. Ecosphere. 5(5).

Laidre, K. L., Jameson, R. J., Gurarie, E., Jeffries, S. J., and H. Allen. 2009. Spatial habitat use patterns of sea otters in coastal Washington. Journal of Mammalogy. 90(4): 906-917.

Kvitek, R. G. ,Fukayama, A. K., Anderson, B. S., and B. K. Grimm. 1988. Sea otter foraging on deep-burrowing bivalves in a California coastal lagoon. Marine Biology. 98: 157-167.

Larson, S., Jameson, R., Etnier, M., Jones, T., and R. Hall. 2012. Genetic diversity and population parameters of sea otters, Enhydra lutris, before fur trade extirpation from 1741-1911. PLoS ONE. 7(3).

Timm-Davis, L. L, DeWitt, T. J., and C. D. Marshall. 2015. Divergent skull morphology supports two trophic specializations in otters (Lutrinae). PLoS ONE. 10(12).

Valentine et al. 2008. Ancient DNA reveals genotypic relationships among Oregon populations of the sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Conservation Genetics. 9:933-938.



Assessing suitable sea otter habitat along Oregon’s coast

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

When considering a species reintroduction into an area, it is important to assess the suitability of the area’s habitat before such efforts begin. By doing this assessment at the outset, managers and conservationists can gain a better understanding of the capacity of the area to support a viable population overtime, and ultimately the success of the reintroduction. However, to do a habitat assessment, researchers must first have a base understanding of the species’ ecological characteristics, behavior, and the physical habitat features necessary for the species’ survival. For my thesis, I plan to conduct a similar assessment to identify suitable sea otter habitat to inform a potential sea otter reintroduction to the Oregon coast.

Source: The Tribune.

To start my assessment, I conducted a literature review of studies that observed and recorded the various types of habitats where sea otters currently exist. In my research, I learned that sea otters use in a range of environments, each with a unique set of habitat characteristics. With so many features to sort through, I have focused on specific habitat features that are consistent across most of the current range of sea otters – from Alaska to California – and are important for at least some aspects of sea otters’ everyday life or behavior, specifically foraging. Focusing my analysis on foraging habitat makes sense as sea otters require around 30% of their body weight in food every day (Costa 1978, Reidman & Estes 1990). Meaning sea otters spend most of their day searching for food.

Here, I present four habitat features I will incorporate into my analysis and explain why these features are important for sea otter foraging behavior and survival.

Habitat Features:

  1. Kelp: Sea otters are famously known for the benefits they provide to kelp forests. In the classic three-trophic-level model, sea otters allow for the growth of kelp by keeping sea urchins – consumers of kelp – in check (Estes & Palmisano 1974). Additionally, sea otters and kelp have a mutually-beneficial relationship. Sea otters will often wrap themselves amongst the top of kelp stocks while feeding, resting, or grooming to prevent being carried away by surface currents. Meanwhile, it’s thought that kelp provide a refuge for sea otters seeking to avoid predators, such as sharks, as well as their prey.
Source: The Telegraph.
  1. Distance from Kelp: The use of kelp, by sea otters, is relatively straight-forward. Yet, kelp can still have an influence on sea otter behavior even when not used directly. A 2014 study found that sea otters along the southern California coast were almost 10 times more likely to be located within kelp habitat than outside, while outside kelp beds sea otter numbers declined with distance from the edge of kelp canopies. Sea otters will often forage outside or next to kelp canopies when prey’s available, and even sometimes to socialize in age- or sex-specific rafts (Lafferty & Tinker 2014). These findings indicate that sea otters can and do regularly disperse away from kelp habitat, but because they’re so dependent on kelp, they don’t stray very far.


  1. Seafloor Substrate: Sea otters forage over a variety of sediment substrates, including rocks, gravel, seagrass, and even sometimes sand. For example, sea otters hunt sea urchins over rocky substrates, while in other areas they may hunt for crabs in seagrass beds (Estes & Palmisano 1974, Hughes et al. 2014). The type of substrate sea otters forage in typically depends on the substrate needs of their target prey species. Despite some variability across their range, sea otters predominantly forage in rocky substrate environments. Rocky substrate is also necessary for kelp, whose holdfasts need to attach to hard, stable surfaces (Carney et al. 2005).
Source: Save our Seas Foundation.
  1. Depth: Seafloor depth plays a pivotal role in sea otter foraging behavior and therefore acts as a natural boundary that determines how far away from shore sea otters distribute. Many of the prey species sea otters eat – including sea urchins, crabs, and snails – live on the seafloor of the inner continental shelf, requiring sea otters to dive when foraging. Interestingly, sea otters exhibit a non-linear relationship with depth, where most individuals forage at intermediate depths as opposed to extremely shallow or deep waters. One study found the average foraging depth to be around 15 meters (Lafferty & Tinker 2014). This behavior results in a hump-shaped distribution of diving patterns as illustrated in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Average probability of occurrence as a function of depth for female (A) and male (B) sea otters as predicted by a synoptic model of space-use (Tinker et al. 2017).

Of course, local conditions and available habitat are always a factor. For example, a study found that sea otters along the coast of Washington foraged further from shore and in slightly shallower environments than sea otters in California (Laidre et al. 2009), indicating that local topography is important in determining distribution. Additionally, diving requires energy and limits how deep sea otters are able to forage for prey. Therefore, diving patterns are not only a function of local topography, but also availability of prey and foraging efficiency in exploiting that prey. Regardless, most sea otter populations follow this hump-shaped diving pattern.

Source: Doretta Smith.

These features are not a complete list of all habitat characteristics that support viable sea otter populations, but seem to be the most consistent throughout their entire range, as well as present in Oregon’s nearshore environment – making them ideal features to include in my analysis. Furthermore, other studies that have predicted suitable sea otter habitat (Tinker et al. 2017), estimated carrying capacity as a product of suitable habitat identification (Laidre et al. 2002), or simply observed sea otter foraging behavior (Estes & Palmisano 1974), have echoed the importance of these four habitat features to sea otter survival.

As with most reintroduction efforts, the process of identifying suitable habitat for the species of interest can be complicated. No two ecosystems or habitats are exactly alike and each comprise their own unique set of physical features and are impacted by environmental processes to varying degrees. The Oregon coast consists of a unique combination of oceanographic conditions and drivers that likely impact the degree and amount of available habitat to sea otters. Despite this, by focusing on the habitat features that are consistently preferred by sea otters across most of their range, I will be able to identify habitat most suitable for sea otter survival in Oregon. The questions of where this habitat is and how much is available are what I’ll determine soon, so stay tuned.


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Estes, J. A. and J. F. Palmisano. 1974. Sea otters: their role in structuring nearshore communities. Science. 185(4156): 1058-1060.

Hughes et al. 2014. Recovery of a top predator mediate negative eutrophic effects on seagrass. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110(38): 15313-15318.

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Tinker et al. 2017. Southern sea otter range expansion and habitat use in the Santa Barbara Channel, California: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2017-1001 (OCS Study BOEM 2017-022), 76 p.,

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