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Sea otter population collapse in southwest Alaska: Assessing ecological covariates, consequences, and causal factors

June 15, 2021

Sea otter (Enhydra lutris) populations in southwest Alaska declined substantially between about 1990 and the most recent set of surveys in 2015. Here we report changes in the distribution and abundance of sea otters, and covarying patterns in reproduction, mortality, body size and condition, diet and foraging behavior, food availability, health profiles, and exposure to environmental contaminants over this 25-yr period. The population decline, which resulted in densities on the order of 5% of environmental carrying capacity, ranged from Attu Island in the west to about Castle Cape (on the south side of the Alaska Peninsula) in the east. Remaining sea otters moved closer to shore and into shallow, protected habitats. Reproductive rates appeared unchanged with the decline. Although the demographic cause of the decline was clearly elevated mortality, stranded carcasses were rare or absent. The net rate of energy gain by foraging sea otters, body length and condition, and prey biomass density, all increased after the decline and varied inversely with sea otter population density beyond the area of decline. Sea otters within the area of decline showed no increases in health anomalies, disease, contaminant exposure, or abnormal gene transcription patterns as compared to animals outside the area of decline. These collective findings are inconsistent with nutritional limitation, disease, or environmental contaminants, and consistent with predation (or possibly some other density-independent factor) as the reason for the sea otter population decline. Our approach and analyses provide a broad conceptual template for thinking about and assessing the causes of wildlife population declines.

Publication Year 2021
Title Sea otter population collapse in southwest Alaska: Assessing ecological covariates, consequences, and causal factors
DOI 10.1002/ecm.1472
Authors M. Tim Tinker, James L. Bodkin, Lizabeth Bowen, Brenda Ballachey, Gena Bentall, Alexander Burdin, Heather Coletti, George G. Esslinger, Brian B. Hatfield, Michael C. Kenner, Kimberly A. Kloecker, Brenda Konar, A. Keith Miles, Daniel Monson, Michael J. Murray, Ben Weitzman, James A. Estes
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Monographs
Index ID 70223388
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB; Western Ecological Research Center