OLYMPIA - Copies of a recently completed state recovery plan for sea otters off the Washington coast are now available from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
The state's sea otter recovery plan calls for implementing strategies to ensure a self-sustaining population, managed in accordance with the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which also provides protections for the animals.
The recovery plan summarizes the historic and current distribution and abundance of the sea otter in Washington, describes factors affecting the population and its habitat, sets recovery objectives and prescribes strategies to recover the species in the state.
"While Washington's sea otter population has been growing at a steady pace in recent years, the otters' current limited range and relatively low overall numbers makes them susceptible to a single catastrophic event, such as an oil spill," said Harriet Allen, WDFW Endangered Species Program Manager.
Sea otters along Washington's coast were wiped out by the early 1900s, after more than a century of intensive harvest by fur traders. A total of 59 sea otters were relocated to the coast from Amchitka Island, Alaska, in 1969 and 1970.
The sea otter was added to the state endangered species list in 1981 because of its small population size, restricted distribution and vulnerability.
The state's sea otter population has grown significantly in recent years. From 1989 to 2004, the otter population increased by more than 8 percent per year, while annual survey counts have ranged from 504 to 743 animals.
The sea otter's current range in Washington extends from just south of Destruction Island near Kalaloch on the Pacific coast to Pillar Point near the mouth of the Pysht River along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Nearly half of the state's population is clustered around Destruction Island.
Historically, sea otters had a much larger range in Washington, including all of the state's Pacific coastline and well into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Sea otters are the largest member of the weasel family, but they are the smallest marine mammal. In Washington, adult males average more than 80 pounds in weight and 54 inches in length, while females typically weigh about 53 pounds and average 49 inches in length. They eat a variety of shellfish including sea urchins, clams, crabs and mussels.
Unlike other marine mammals, sea otters have no blubber layer to provide buoyancy and protect them from cold water. Instead, they rely on a high metabolism and extremely dense fur for protection from the elements. Even partial contamination by oil destroys the insulating character of the fur and can lead to death from hypothermia.
The damaging effects of oil on sea otters are evident in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, where the otter population is currently half of its pre-spill population.
Copies of the sea otter recovery report are available on the WDFW website or by writing to WDFW Wildlife Program, 600 Capitol Way N., Olympia, WA., 98501-1091.