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Southern (California) sea otter population status and trends at San Nicolas Island, 2020–2023

September 12, 2023

The population of southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) at San Nicolas Island, California, has been monitored annually since the translocation of 140 southern sea otters to the island was completed in 1990. Monitoring efforts have varied in frequency and type across years. In 2017, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a southern sea otter monitoring and research plan to determine the effects of military readiness activities on the growth or decline of the southern sea otter population at San Nicolas Island. The southern sea otter is the only subspecies of sea otter in California (hereafter, “sea otter"). The monitoring program, at its basic level, includes seasonal surveys of population abundance, distribution, and foraging activity. From 2020 to 2023, we measured a 10-percent per annum increase in population abundance (95-percent confidence interval =0–20 percent), with 146 total individuals as of April 2023. Coinciding with the recent population growth, the sea otter distribution, which previously tended to concentrate on the island’s west end during 2003–2006 before shifting toward more use in the north and south sides during 2017–2019, appears to have shifted again during 2020–2023 to concentrate at the island’s east end. Forage data were collected between February 2020 and April 2023. There was a total of 773 forage dives in 60 forage bouts, with most of the identified prey on successful dives (n=401) recorded as sea urchins (66 percent), followed by bivalves (15 percent), snails (12 percent), and crabs (5.2 percent). Two lobsters and three abalone also were identified among the sea otter prey. Estimates of energy intake rates averaged 14.0 kilocalories per minute (95-percent confidence interval =10.8–17.2 kilocalories per minute). Monitoring data from the past two decades indicate that sea otters at San Nicolas Island have maintained a steady pattern of energy intake and population growth characteristic of a robust population, including a sixfold growth between 2000 and 2023. There was no conclusive evidence of density-dependent effects based on these patterns; however, estimates of energy intake rates for 2020–2023 were slightly lower than previous estimates from 2017 to 2019. Additionally, subtidal monitoring results at four sites around San Nicolas Island indicated that counts of purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) have increased between 2003 and 2023, whereas sea otter foraging surveys completed during the same period revealed that some sea otters have shifted toward higher consumption of purple sea urchins and bivalves compared to red sea urchins (S. fransicanus), which generally are the preferred larger prey of sea otters. These results contribute to the understanding of population dynamics and to the conservation and planning of future monitoring and research of sea otters at San Nicolas Island.

Publication Year 2023
Title Southern (California) sea otter population status and trends at San Nicolas Island, 2020–2023
DOI 10.3133/ofr20231071
Authors Julie L. Yee, Joseph A. Tomoleoni, Michael C. Kenner, Jessica A. Fujii, Gena B. Bentall, Michelle M. Staedler, Brian B. Hatfield
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2023-1071
Index ID ofr20231071
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center