Sea otter populations worldwide fell to near extinction during the fur trade, but have made a critical comeback in Southeast Alaska over the past 50 years. Help scientists to understand the ecological impact of these top predators to better protect them, as well as to understand nearshore ecological processes.
Between the mid-1700s and 1900, sea otters were hunted to near extinction for their fine, dense, and highly valuable fur. In the 1960s, these animals were reintroduced in Southeast Alaska, and their population has grown from roughly 400 to more than 25,000 in the region since that time.
Seagrass meadows – one of the most widespread habitats in shallow coastal areas around the world – provide a critical habitat for sea otters, as well as a wide range of other species, including fish, birds, and invertebrates. Seagrasses filter nutrients, enhance water quality, stabilize sediments, and serve as an important carbon sink (seagrasses are responsible for 10% of all carbon buried in the ocean). Yet seagrass meadows have been disappearing worldwide, due in part to climate change, agricultural run-off, invasive species, and nearshore development. Scientists have recently discovered that top predators such as sea otters may also play a role in maintaining the health of seagrasses, but it is unclear exactly what that role is in Southeast Alaska.
This recovery of sea otters in Southeast Alaska provides an outstanding opportunity to understand their impact on coastal ecosystems. By studying seagrasses in areas where sea otters are abundant as compared to regions where there are very few otters, scientists will be able to more fully observe the impact of these otters on their environment.