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Nearshore Marine Ecosystem Research Program

observing sea otters foraging in Kenai Fjords National Park - photo by Randy Davis, Texas A&M
Sea otter female and pup

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are one of 4 marine mammal species managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has management authority, and the U.S. Geological Survey leads research for the DOI. USGS scientists at the Alaska Science Center take the lead for studies of sea otters and their ecosystem in Alaska, and USGS scientists at the Western Ecological Research Center take the lead for studies of sea otters in California. Scientists at the two centers also collaborate extensively and conduct research throughout the species range.

Sea otters inhabit a narrow band of shallow ocean waters along coastlines from northern Japan to the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia and along the Aleutian Archipelago in Alaska and down the eastern Pacific to northern Mexico. Sea otters were nearly extirpated due to intensive fur harvesting in the 18th and 19th centuries, but have since reoccupied much of their original range. Sea otters are listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened in California and in southwest Alaska.

Our studies in Alaska focus on population biology, sea otter ecology within the nearshore ecosystem they inhabit, long term monitoring of nearshore marine ecosystems, and the process of recovery from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. We have been conducting long-term research on sea otters and their ecosystem since the 1940s in order to provide management agencies the data needed to explore and implement science-based decisions on conservation and management. Because sea otters are a useful indicator species, our team works with local, federal, and international sea otter and other nearshore specialists to develop broad scale studies that address a wide array of questions about sea otters and the nearshore habitats and food web they occupy. Areas of ongoing research include: sea otter population status, their role in structuring coastal marine ecosystems, conflicts between sea otters and humans over marine resources, population structuring and the effects of population reductions and translocations on sea otter genetic variability, and long-term ecosystem level effects of sub-acute and chronic exposure of oil and other contaminants.

Our most recent publications include:

Ballachey, B. E., D. H. Monson, G. G. Esslinger, K. Kloecker, J. Bodkin, L. Bowen, and A. K. Miles. 2014. 2013 update on sea otter studies to assess recovery from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Prince William Sound, Alaska. U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2014-1030, 40 p. doi: 10.3133/ofr20141030

Ballachey, B. E., J. L. Bodkin, and D. H. Monson. 2013. Quantifying long-term risks to sea otters from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill: Reply to Harwell & Gentile (2013). Marine Ecology Progress Series 488:297-301. doi:10.3354/meps10498

Esslinger, G. G., J. L. Bodkin, A. R. Breton, J. M. Burns, and D. H. Monson. 2014. Temporal patterns in the foraging behavior of sea otters in Alaska. Journal of Wildlife Management. doi: 10.1002/jwmg.701

Tinker, M. T., M. Novak, P. Guimarães, F. M. D. Marquitti, J. L Bodkin, M. Staedler, G. Bentall and J. A. Estes. 2012. The structure and mechanisms of diet specialization: Testing models of individual variation in resource use with sea otters. Ecology Letters 15(5):475-483. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2012.01760.x

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