In a year when California’s sea otter population declined slightly, organizers of Sea Otter Awareness Week are highlighting some bright spots in the campaign to restore the coastal creatures’ presence along state shores.
Sea Otter Awareness Week begins Sunday, featuring seven days of events in aquariums across the country, as well as Australia, Canada and The Netherlands.
This year’s census figures showed a slight drop in California’s number of southern sea otters, according to Jim Curland, a marine program associate with Defenders of Wildlife.
The U.S. Geological Survey does a population count every spring and fall, Curland said, and plugs the numbers into a three-year average. This year, an average of 2,813 sea otters were living on California’s central coast, down from last year’s average of 2,826.
The decline is small but is the first in more than a decade, Curland said.
Southern sea otters can qualify for removal from the Endangered Species List when their three-year averages exceed 3,090 for three continuous years, according to the USGS. The animals’ mortality rates have jumped in recent years, and researchers are still examining the reasons behind these deaths.
This year’s population dip underscores the importance of Sea Otter Awareness Week, Curland said. The lectures, exhibits and other activities are designed to do more than simply alert visitors to the plight of the affable marine mammals.
“Hopefully we can give some tangible things that the public can do to get involved in sea otter conservation,” he said.
Curland’s group is encouraging Californians to check the box on their state income tax forms to donate money to the California Sea Otter Fund. Despite the economic downturn, the fund received enough contributions to remain on income tax forms for 2010. The funds get divided up between conservation research, education and health efforts for the existing sea otter population.
The U.S. House of Representatives also approved a bill to fund sea otter recovery, Curland said. He feels confident the Senate will take up The Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act by early next year.
The bill would allocate $5 million annually for five years towards research and conservation efforts.
“We all know the State of California’s funding and budget woes,” Curland said. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “just doesn’t have the funding to do all the things that need to be done,” he said.
If approved, the money will help researchers determine what it causing sea otter mortality.
Researchers believe the animals’ food sources may contain deadly pathogens. USGS studies have confirmed a link between parasites originating in opossums and members of the cat family. Curland said, however, that the pathogens have multiple origins.
“Part of the transmission is coming from the fact that sea otters eat a variety of things,” he said of the pathogens.
The California Academy of Sciences, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education in San Mateo are among the Bay Area organizations holding events for Sea Otter Awareness Week. A full list is available at www.defenders.org.