About 250 years ago sea otters (Enhydra lutris) were distributed continuously from central Baja California, north and west along the Pacific Rim to Machatka Peninsula in Russia, and south along the Kuril Island to northern Japan (Kenyon 1969; Fig. 1a). Several hundred thousand sea otters may have occurred in the north Pacific region when commercial hunting began in the 18th century (Riedman and Estes 1990).
At least two attributes of the sea otter have influenced humans, likely for as long as they have resided together along the coast of the north Pacific Ocean. First, sea otters rely on a dense fur, among the finest in the world, for insulation in the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean. The demand for sea otter fur led to their near extinction in the 19th century. The fur harvest, begun about 1740 and halted by international treaty in 1911, left surviving colonies, each likely numbering less than a few hundred animals, in California, south-central Alaska, and the Aleutian, Medney, and Kuril Islands (Fig. 1a). These individuals provided the nucleus for the recovery of the species. Today more than 100,000 sea otters occur throughout about 75% of their original range (fig. 1b). Immigration has resulted in near-complete occupation of the Aleutian and Kuril archipelagos and the Alaska peninsula. Successful translocations have resulted in viable populations in southeast Alaska, Washington, and British Columbia. Large amounts of unoccupied habitat remain along the coasts of Russia, Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
The second potential source of conflict between sea otters and humans is that sea otters prey on and often limit some benthic invertebrate populations. Because some of these invertebrates are aso used by humans (Estes and VanBlaricom 1985), human perceptions about the effects of sea otter foraging on invertebrates sometimes differ. By limiting populations of herbivorous invertebrates (e.g., sea urchins [Echinoidea]) otters help maintain the integrity of kelp forest communities. At the same time, sea otter predation on other marine invertebrates can lead to direct competition with humans for resources. These interactions add complex dimensions to the conservation and management of sea otters, in large part because of wide-ranging social, ecological, and economic consequences of sea otter foraging.
Long-term data on abundance and distribution are available for relatively few sea otter populations. Here we summarize such data from three populations: Being Island, Russia; Prince William Sound, Alaska; and Olympic Peninsula, Washington. The Bering Island population resulted from natural emigration and represents complete recovery. Prince William Sounds represents near recovery of a remnant population, whereas the Washington population was established via translocations from Alaska and is just beginning to recover. We will compare growth rates and current status among these populations. Because of its unique status and growth characteristics, the California sea otter is not treated in this article.