Sea Otter Projects Funded for 2024

sea otter at aquarium

Sea Otter Foundation & Trust funding grants have impacted sea otter recovery, conservation, and education for several years.  The following sea otter research and conservation projects have been funded for 2024 and they will have significant impacts on shaping sea otter recovery and conservation.

Seattle Aquarium – the aquarium has embarked on a multi-year study investigating the resilience of Washington’s nearshore marine ecosystems and whether sea otters help stabilize those ecosystems.  Sea Otter Foundation & Trust funding supported this study from its inception when an ROV (remotely operated vehicle known to Seattle Aquarium staff as Nereo) was purchased to kickstart the investigations. In 2024, the aquarium is purchasing a drone to enhance aerial surveys and research, especially in difficult-to-access areas along the Washington coast.

The initial investigations with the ROV involved training Artificial Intelligence (AI) methods of image analysis to evaluate the extent to which sea otters modify the resilience of coastal ecosystems. Surveys have been conducted in areas adjacent to sea otter presence and absence in and around Neah Bay, WA and the data are currently being analyzed by Dr. Zachary Randell and aquarium staff members. Learn more about the initial study by watching our interview with Dr. Zachary Randell.

Sea otter effects on Washington nearshore marine environment

Dr. Randell’s data will be further enhanced in 2024 as the aquarium employs their grant from Sea Otter Foundation & Trust to purchase a drone.  Drones have been increasingly used in a variety of wildlife studies (for example, using drones to measure seal body mass). Conservation of threatened species requires accurate monitoring of distribution and abundance, and drones equipped with high-resolution cameras can collect accurate photography and videography. The zoom capabilities allow observers to locate and count individual sea otters, record sea otter foraging behavior and capture prey species. Drone cameras can also include thermal imaging, which would greatly enhance the accuracy of determining sea otter presence. Using heat readings will drastically improve an observer’s ability to differentiate sea otters from small rocks and kelp.

Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine – With our funding support, Dr. Risa Pesapane has been studying the effects of nasal pulmonary mites on sea otters for many years and has characterized the specific species infesting sea otters; determined that a history of captive care and proximity to harbor seals increase infestation; and has demonstrated that the infecting mites can survive for long periods and withstand disinfection practices. 2024 monies awarded will allow Pesapane and graduate students to understand the impact nasal pulmonary mites have on individual sea otter immunity.

Knowledge of host immunity in response to nasal mite infestation is important for southern sea otter survival and recovery for several reasons. First, we know that many otters can be infested with mites but only some infestations become heavy and result in clinical disease for sea otters.  If we knew why some individuals are at higher risk of developing heavy infestations from nasal pulmonary mites, this could inform treatment to improve rehabilitation outcomes for sea otters. Second, we know that bacterial infection is a significant cause of sea otter morality and that these mites harbor numerous bacterial pathogens. If it’s determined that mites are impacting immune function, this may make sea otters more susceptible to invasion by opportunistic bacteria. This would suggest that treatment for infestations of nasal pulmonary mites, in any capacity, is warranted during sea otter rehabilitative care.

sea otter at aquariumKansas City Zoo & Aquarium – in 2023, the grant given by Sea Otter Foundation & Trust made significant contributions to relocating sea otters to Kansas as well as purchasing initial equipment to care for the sea otters. Current funding in 2024 allows the zoo and aquarium to further enhance the sea otter surroundings by purchasing large-scale enrichment toys and supplies, necessary medical and veterinary training supplies, and materials to build various storage units and cabinets.

In July 2023, the Kansas City Zoo & Aquarium received two juvenile male sea otters from the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. The sea otters quickly become acclimated to their new surrounding as well as their caretakers. The sea otters serve as perfect ambassadors for their species, educating guests about the sea otter conservation story.  Kansas City Zoo & Aquarium is the only zoo or aquarium in the central United States to house sea otters. The nearest facilities with sea otters are Minnesota Zoo and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.  This represents a huge opportunity to reach and provide the sea otter conservation message to individuals, potentially for the first time.