Innovative Technologies in Sea Otter Research

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) play a crucial role in maintaining the health and balance of their marine ecosystems. As a keystone species, their well-being is an indicator of the overall health of their habitat. In recent years, innovative technologies have revolutionized the field of sea otter research and monitoring, providing invaluable insights into their behavior, health, and population dynamics. These advancements are vital for the conservation and protection of sea otters, and many have been made possible through the support of the Sea Otter Foundation & Trust (SOFT) granting program. In this article, we’ll examine some of the technologies used in sea otter research and monitoring and highlight how SOFT grant recipients are using these technologies. 

Cutting-Edge Technologies in Sea Otter Conservation

  • Satellite Tracking: Researchers use satellite tracking devices — also referred to as sea otter tracking tags — to monitor the movements and migration patterns of sea otters. These tags are placed on the hind flippers of sea otters, while radio transponders can be embedded in the abdomen of the sea otter. This technology provides real-time data, allowing scientists to understand sea otters’ ranging behavior and habitat use.
  • Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs): Underwater ROVs equipped with cameras and sensors are used to study the ocean floor, with and without sea otters. This technology is particularly useful for studying how the presence of sea otters, or lack thereof, plays a role in the kelp forest ecosystem.
  • Live Sea Otter Cams: The use of live sea otter cams has gained popularity in recent years. These cameras provide continuous streaming of sea otter activities, enabling researchers and the public to observe their behaviors in real-time. 
  • Drones: Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are being increasingly used for aerial surveys of sea otter populations. They offer a non-invasive method to capture high-resolution images and videos, aiding in population counts and health assessments.
  • Genetic Analysis: Advances in genetic research have allowed scientists to study the genetic diversity and health of sea otter populations. This information is crucial for understanding their resilience to environmental changes and diseases.

The Importance of Technology in Sea Otter Research

The integration of these technologies into sea otter research has significantly improved our ability to monitor and protect these marine mammals. For instance, tracking sea otters using satellite tags has shed light on their migratory patterns and critical habitat areas, which is essential for implementing effective conservation strategies. Similarly, the use of ROVs and live cams has enhanced our understanding of sea otter behavior and their role in the ecosystem, particularly their impact as a keystone species in kelp forests.

Supporting Research and Conservation Efforts

The Sea Otter Foundation & Trust plays a pivotal role in supporting research and conservation efforts through funding of grants. Our commitment to sea otter protection and preservation is evident through our support of various research projects and initiatives. By providing financial support to researchers and conservationists, SOFT ensures that innovative technologies continue to advance our knowledge and protection of sea otters.

Advancements in technology have revolutionized the way we conduct research about sea otters and monitor their populations. These innovative tools have not only enhanced our understanding of sea otter behavior and ecology but also improved our ability to protect and conserve these important marine mammals. The support provided by SOFT is crucial in driving forward these technological developments and ensuring the continued success of sea otter conservation efforts. Let’s take a look at some of the recent grantees who have utilized grants from SOFT for technology critical to their research.

Digital Advances in Sea Otter Conservation: The ROMP InitiativeVolunteer out in the field at Elkhorn Slough Reserve

The Elkhorn Slough Foundation’s Reserve Otter Monitoring Program (ROMP) has made significant strides in sea otter conservation, thanks to multiple grants from SOFT. The project has transitioned to digital data collection using iPads, streamlining the process and enhancing data accuracy. This technology allows for quick data entry, reference map access, and automatic data summarization, significantly reducing manual errors. The success of ROMP showcases the role of innovative tools in wildlife monitoring and conservation, highlighting the importance of technology in protecting keystone species like sea otters.

UC Santa Cruz Sea Otter Monitoring Project

In 2022 and 2023, researchers at UC Santa Cruz launched a study investigating  Habitat Use, Stressors, and Social Structure in an Estuarine Sea Otter Population  The 2nd phase of the project was funded by SOFT in 2023. This project captured and flipper-tagged 63 and 44 sea otters in 2022 and 2023, respectively. This longitudinal study aims to understand changes in otter health, stress levels, and behavior as well as to give insights into reintroduction initiatives.

Funds were used for telescope repairs, sampling supplies, and permits, with the remaining funds supporting ongoing research and monitoring efforts in consultation with SOFT. This project is crucial for understanding sea otter demography, ecology, and behavior in an estuarine environment.

Enhancing Sea Otter Research through Advanced Technology: Seattle Aquarium’s Initiative

The Seattle Aquarium’s Coastal Climate Resilience (CCR) project represents a significant leap in understanding the ecological role of sea otters in nearshore ecosystems, especially those along the Washington coast. The project harnesses the power of advanced remotely operated vehicle (ROV) technology, artificial intelligence (AI), and drones to uncover the intricate dynamics between sea otters, their prey, and the overall health of the benthic community. Here are some of the key ways these technologies are being used:

  • Advancements in ROV Technology:

    Dr. Zachary Randell with ROV in Seattle WashingtonWith financial support from SOFT, the Aquarium invested in a BlueROV2, along with essential accessories such as a heavy payload kit for lights and cameras, a heavy retrofit kit for motor upgrades, and a 150m tether. These enhancements have equipped the ROV to capture high-quality video and photographic imagery of the ocean floor, providing a window into the underwater world that is crucial for studying sea otters’ behavior and their impact on the ecosystem.

The project team has customized two BlueROV2s, named ROV Nereo and ROV Lutris, after the scientific names for bull kelp and sea otters, respectively. ROV Lutris, being the newer model, has been further modified with a Doppler Velocity Log (DVL) to improve the accuracy of acoustic GPS positioning, enabling precise mapping of the surveyed areas.

  • Leveraging Artificial Intelligence for Data Analysis:

    A major innovation of this project is the application of AI and machine learning algorithms to analyze the vast amount of imagery collected by the ROV. The team uses CoralNet to generate metrics of percent cover for various species and substrates, and VIAME for object detection of conspicuous species such as sea urchins, sea stars, and fish. This data-driven approach allows for a detailed quantification of the benthic community structure, offering insights into the ecological balance of the habitat.

  • Exploring the Protective Role of Sea Otters:

    Advanced technology is allowing Seattle Aquarium to test preliminary observations suggesting that sea otters play a protective role in maintaining the diversity of sessile invertebrates in their habitats. Sites with a consistent presence of sea otters — such as one near Neah Bay — have retained their diverse benthic communities despite environmental disturbances like the El Niño Southern Oscillation event and sea star wasting outbreaks. In contrast, sites without sea otters have experienced a shift toward urchin barrens, highlighting the potential of sea otters in preventing ecosystem degradation.

  • Drones Elevate Sea Otter Research in Washington:

Additional funding from SOFT, in 2024, will allow the Seattle Aquarium to add sea otter-monitoring drones to its coastal study and to further enhance its decade-long study of otter populations and prey abundance. With drones’ high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging, researchers can now observe sea otters more effectively, particularly in the challenging terrain of Washington’s coast.

The addition of drones will complement existing data from ground observations and ROVs. This innovative approach allows for a broader survey area, including hard-to-reach sites that are inaccessible by boat or car, offering a new perspective on otter foraging behavior and habitat use.

The drone aerial surveys will provide a dual view of the ecosystem, from kelp cover at the surface to benthic structures below, thanks to advanced AI image analysis. The project aims to give a more comprehensive understanding of kelp forest health and the otters’ role in the ecosystem. With the Aquarium’s expertise, drone technology will become a critical tool in their Coastal Climate Resilience program.

By advancing the methodologies in sea otter research and leveraging cutting-edge technologies, the Seattle Aquarium’s project is poised to make significant contributions to the conservation and management of nearshore ecosystems. The insights gained will not only enhance the understanding of sea otter ecology but also inform strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change on marine habitats. Through a combined use of technologies, the initiative is setting new standards in marine research, offering holistic and nuanced views of the marine ecosystem and the pivotal roles that sea otters play within it.

two sea otters hauled out on beachAdopting innovative technologies such as satellite tracking, ROVs, drones, and AI analysis is revolutionizing sea otter research and conservation. These advancements have enhanced the ability to monitor sea otter populations, understand their behavior and habitat use, and assess their role in maintaining ecosystem balance. Through SOFT’s grants, research institutions and conservation programs can integrate state-of-the-art tools into sea otter research, helping to gain deeper insights into these keystone species, inform effective conservation strategies, and ensure the resilience of coastal ecosystems for future generations.

At Sea Otter Foundation & Trust (SOFT), we work to ensure the survival and recovery of sea otters in their habitats by building funds to support research, conservation, and education. You can learn more about the all-important efforts of our grant recipients by watching our interviews with them. These efforts are funded directly by our supporters, so consider advancing our crucial work by adopting an otter or making a donation today!

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