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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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.
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.
Carney, L. T., Robert Waaland, J., Kilinger, T., and K. Ewing. 2005. Restoration of the bull kelp Nereocystis luetkeana in nearshore rocky habitats. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 302: 49-61.
Costas, D. P. 1978. The ecological energetics, waters, and electrolyte balance of the California sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.
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.
Lafferty, K. D. and M. T. Tinker. 2014. Sea otters are recolonizing southern California in fits and starts. Ecosphere. 5(5): 1-11.
Laidre et al. 2002. Estimates of carrying capacity for sea otters in Washington state. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 30(4): 1172-1181.
Laidre et al. 2009. Spatial habitat use patterns of sea otters in coastal Washington. Journal of Mammalogy. 90(4): 906-917.
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., http://doi.org/10.3133/ofr20171001.
Reidman, M. L. and J. A. Estes. 1990. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris): behavior, ecology, and natural history. United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report. 90: 1-126.