Oregon Zoo to host Sea Otter Awareness Week

September 6, 2013 - 12:13pm

Daily keeper talks help bring attention to issues sea otters face in the wild

Otter lovers, be aware! The Oregon Zoo and Friends of the Sea Otter celebrate Sea Otter Awareness Week, Sept. 22-28 — seven days aimed at showcasing these playful marine mammals and highlighting their critical role in the North Pacific ecosystem.

At 2:30 p.m. each day, visitors can stop by the zoo's Steller Cove exhibit to hear keeper talks and watch the zoo's two sea otters, Thelma and Eddie, scarf down enrichment treats or participate in training sessions.

"Sea otters are listed as threatened on the Endangered Species list," said keeper Jenny DeGroot, the zoo's sea otter lead. "They eat a lot of invertebrates that filter the seawater, so anything that winds up in the water — pollution, oil spills, etc. — can wind up in the sea otters as well."

Sea Otter Awareness Week began in 2003 with a goal of educating people about these animals, their natural history and the threats they face. Considered a keystone species, sea otters play critical role in the Pacific Coast marine ecosystem, promoting healthy kelp forests, which in turn support thousands of organisms.

Sea otters once ranged along the north Pacific Rim from Japan to Baja California, including along the Oregon coast, and are thought to have numbered between 150,000 to 300,000 animals. Prized for their soft, luxurious fur, the animals were hunted to the brink of extinction during the late 1800s and early 1900s. By 1911, aggressive fur-trapping campaigns had reduced the global sea otter population to around 2,000. Although now protected against trapping, sea otters are threatened by oil spills, fishing nets and infectious diseases. Biologists estimate the population has dropped by 50 percent over the past 30 years. Wild sea otters have not established colonies off the Oregon coast since 1907, though a few individual otters have been sighted, most recently in Depoe Bay in 2009.

Although now protected against trapping, sea otters are threatened by oil spills, fishing nets and infectious diseases. Biologists estimate the population has dropped by 50 percent over the past 30 years. Wild sea otters have not established colonies off the Oregon coast since 1907, though a few individuals have been sighted, most recently in Depoe Bay in 2009.

Eddie and Thelma have lived at the Oregon Zoo since 2000, on long-term loan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Both otters were rescued off the coast of California, where they had been abandoned as pups in 1998. Lacking the skills to survive on their own in the wild, they were taken to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for rehabilitation but were eventually deemed non-releasable.

Learn more about the Oregon Zoo's sea otters and how to help protect sea otters in the wild on the Oregon Zoo sea otter page.