Lingering questions on the potential to bring sea otters back to Oregon

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

By now, I’m sure you’re aware of recent interests to reintroduce sea otters to Oregon. To inform this effort, my research focuses on predicting suitable sea otter habitat and investigating the potential ecological effects if sea otters are reintroduced in the future. This information will help managers gain a better understanding of the potential for sea otters to reestablish in Oregon, as well as how Oregon’s ecosystems may change via top-down processes. These analyses will address some sources of uncertainties of this effort, but there are still many more questions researchers could address to further guide this process. Here, I note some lingering questions I’ve come across in the course of conducting my research. This is not a complete list of all questions that could or should be investigated, but they represent some of the most interesting questions I have and others have in Oregon.

Credit: Todd Mcleish

The questions, and our associated knowledge on each of these topics:

Is there enough available prey to support a robust sea otter population in Oregon?

Sea otters require approximately 30% of their own body weight in food every day (Costa 1978, Reidman & Estes 1990). With a large appetite, they not only need to spend most of their time foraging, but require a steady supply of prey to survive. For predators, we assume the presence of suitable habitat is a reliable proxy for prey availability (Redfern et al. 2006). Whereby, quality habitat should supply enough prey to sustain predators at higher trophic levels.

In making these habitat predictions for sea otters, we must also recognize the potential limitations of this “habitat equals prey” paradigm, in that there may be parcels of habitat where prey is unavailable or inaccessible. In Oregon, there could be unknown processes unique to our nearshore ecosystems that would support less prey for sea otters. This possibility highlights the importance of not only understanding how much suitable habitat is available for foraging sea otters, but also how much prey is available in these habitats to sustain a viable otter population in the future. Supplementing these habitat predictions with fishery-independent prey surveys is one way to address this question.

Credit: Suzi Eszterhas via Smithsonian Magazine

How will Oregon’s oceanographic seasonality alter or impact habitat suitability?

Sea otters along the California coast exist in an environment with persistent Giant kelp beds, moderate to low wave intensity, and year-round upwelling regimes. These environmental variables and habitat factors create productive ecosystems that provide quality sea otter habitat and a steady supply of prey; thus, supporting high densities of sea otters. This environment contrasts with the Oregon coast, which is characterized by seasonal changes in bull kelp and wave intensity. Summer months have dense kelp beds, calm surf, and strong upwellings. While winter months have little to no kelp, weak upwellings, and intense wave climates. These seasonal variations raise the question as to how these temporal fluctuations in available habitat could impact the number of sea otters able to survive in Oregon.

In Washington – an environment like Oregon – sea otters exhibit seasonal distribution patterns in response to intensifying wave climates. During calm summer months, sea otters primarily forage along the outer coast, but move into more protected areas, such as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, during winter months (Laidre et al. 2009). If sea otters were reintroduced to Oregon, we may very well observe similar seasonal movement patterns (e.g. dispersal into estuaries), but the degree to which this seasonal redistribution and reduction in foraging habitat could impact sea otter reestablishment and recovery is currently unknown.

Credit: Oregon Coast Aquarium

In the event of a reintroduction, do northern or southern sea otters have a greater capacity to adapt to Oregon environments?

In the early 1970’s, Oregon’s first sea otter translocation effort failed (Jameson et al. 1982). Since then, hypotheses on the potential ecological differences between northern and southern sea otters have been proposed as potential factors of the failed effort, potentially due to different abilities to exploit specific prey species. Studies have demonstrated that northern and southern sea otters have slight morphological differences – northern otters having larger skulls and teeth than southern otters (Wilson et al. 1991). This finding has created the hypothesis that the northern otter’s larger skull and teeth allow it to consume prey with denser exoskeletons, and thereby can exploit a greater diversity of prey species. However, there appears to be a lack of evidence to suggest larger skulls and teeth translate to greater bite force. Based on morphology alone, either sub-species could be just as successful in exploiting different prey species.

A different direction to address questions around adaptability is to look at similarities in habitat and oceanographic characteristics. Sea otters exist along a gradient of habitat types (e.g. kelp forests, estuaries, soft-sediment environments) and oceanographic conditions (e.g. warm-temperature to cooler sub-Arctic waters) (Laidre et al. 2009, Lafferty et al. 2014). Yet, we currently don’t know how well or quickly otters can adapt when they expand into new habitats that differ from ones they are familiar with. Sea otters must be efficient foragers and need to acquire skills that allow them to effectively hunt specific prey species (Estes et al. 2003). Hypothetically, if we take sea otters from rocky environments where they’ve developed foraging skills to hunt sea urchins and abalones, and place them in a soft-sediment environment, how quickly would they develop new foraging skills to exploit soft-sediment prey species? Would they adapt quickly enough to meet their daily prey requirements?

Credit: Eric Risberg/Associated Press via The Columbian

In Oregon, specifically, how might climate change impact sea otters, and how might sea otters mediate climate impacts?

Climate change has been shown to directly impact many species via changes in temperature (Chen et al. 2011). Some species have specific thermal tolerances, in which they can only survive within a specified temperature range (i.e. maximum and minimum). Once the temperature moves out of that range, the species can either move with those shifting water masses, behaviorally adapt or perish (Sunday et al. 2012). It’s unclear if and how changing temperatures will impact sea otters, directly. However, sea otters could still be indirectly affected via impacts to their prey. If prey species in sea otter habitat decline due to changing temperatures, this would reduce available food for otters. Ocean acidification (OA) is another climate-induced process that could indirectly impact sea otters. By creating chemical conditions that make it difficult for species to form shells, OA could decrease the availability of some prey species, as well (Gaylord et al. 2011).

Interestingly, these pathways between sea otters and climate change become more complex when we consider the potentially mediating effects from sea otters. Aquatic plants – such as kelp and seagrass – can reduce the impacts of climate change by absorbing and taking carbon out of the water column (Krause-Jensen & Duarte 2016). This carbon sequestration can then decrease acidic conditions from OA and mediate the negative impacts to shell-forming species. When sea otters catalyze a tropic cascade, in which herbivores are reduced and aquatic plants are restored, they could increase rates of carbon sequestration. While sea otters could be an effective tool against climate impacts, it’s not clear how this predator and catalyst will balance each other out. We first need to investigate the potential magnitude – both temporal and spatial – of these two processes to make any predictions about how sea otters and climate change might interact here in Oregon.

Credit: National Wildlife Federation

In Summary

There are several questions I’ve noted here that warrant further investigation and could be a focus for future research as this potential sea otter reintroduction effort progresses. These are by no means every question that should be addressed, but they do represent topics or themes I have come across several times in my own research or in conversations with other researchers and managers. I think it’s also important to recognize that these questions predominantly relate to the natural sciences and reflect my interest as an ecologist. The number of relevant questions that would inform this effort could grow infinitely large if we expand our disciplines to the social sciences, economics, genetics, so on and so forth. Lastly, these questions highlight the important point that there is still a lot we currently don’t know about (1) the ecology and natural behavior of sea otters, and (2) what a future with sea otters in Oregon might look like. As with any new idea, there will always be more questions than concrete answers, but we – here in the GEMM Lab – are working hard to address the most crucial ones first and provide reliable answers and information wherever we can.

References:

Chen, I., Hill, J. K., Ohlemuller, R., Roy, D. B., and C. D. Thomas. 2011. Rapid range shifts of species associated with high levels of climate warming. Science. 333: 1024-1026.

Costa, D. P. 1978. The ecological energetics, water, and electrolyte balance of the California sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Estes, J. A., Riedman, M. L., Staedler, M. M., Tinker, M. T., and B. E. Lyon. 2003. Individual variation in prey selection by sea otters: patterns, causes and implications. Journal of Animal Ecology. 72: 144-155.

Gaylord et al. 2011. Functional impacts of ocean acidification in an ecologically critical foundation species. Journal of Experimental Biology. 214: 2586-2594.

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(2): 100-107.

Krause-Jensen, D., and C. M. Duarte. 2016. Substantial role of macroalgae in marine carbon sequestration. Nature Geoscience. 9: 737-742.

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 Marine Mammalogy. 90(4): 906-917.

Redfern et al. 2006. Techniques for cetacean-habitat modeling. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 310: 271-295.

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.

Sunday, J. M., Bates, A. E., and N. K. Dulvy. 2012. Thermal tolerance and the global redistribution of animals. Nature: Climate Change. 2: 686-690.

Wilson, D. E., Bogan, M. A., Brownell, R. L., Burdin, A. M., and M. K. Maminov. 1991. Geographic variation in sea otters, Ehydra lutris. Journal of Mammalogy. 72(1): 22-36.

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