Southern (California) Sea Otter Population Status and Trends at San Nicolas Island, 2017–2020

Open-File Report 2020-1115
Wildlife Program
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Navy
By: , and 



The southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) population at San Nicolas Island, California, has been monitored annually since the translocation of 140 sea otters to the island was completed in 1990. Monitoring efforts have varied in frequency and type across years. In 2017, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a sea otter monitoring and research plan to determine the effects of military readiness activities on the growth or decline of the southern sea otter population at San Nicolas Island. The monitoring program, at its basic level, includes quarterly seasonal surveys of population abundance, distribution, and foraging activity. From 2017 to 2020, we measured a 22-percent per annum increase in population abundance (95-percent confidence interval =11–34 percent) with 114 total individuals as of February 2020. Coinciding with recent population growth, the sea otter distribution, which previously tended to concentrate on the west side, appears to have shifted toward an expansion of use in the north and especially greater seasonal use in the north and south during winter and spring. Foraging data were collected on a total of 2,675 foraging dives in 167 foraging bouts, and the majority of identified prey on successful dives (n=1,335) were sea urchins (940) followed by snails (240) and crabs (78). Small numbers of lobsters (26), octopus (16), and abalone (5) also were identified. Estimates of energy intake rates averaged 17.3 kilocalories per minute (95-percent confidence interval =15.6–19.0 kilocalories per minute) and suggest possible variations across years and seasons, but confidence intervals based on specific years of data were relatively wide. In addition to abundance, trends, distribution, and forage energy intake across seasons and years, these replicated surveys provide information on the precision of data achieved by quarterly survey effort. We used precision estimates and conducted simulation analyses to assess the power of detecting 10-percent or greater decreases in population growth rates and how this power is likely to change with years of observation, survey effort, and the size of decrease. These results can be useful to the planning of future monitoring and research of sea otters at San Nicolas Island.

Suggested Citation

Yee, J.L., Tomoleoni, J.A., Kenner, M.C., Fujii, J., Bentall, G.B., Tinker, M.T., and Hatfield, B.B., 2020, Southern (California) sea otter population status and trends at San Nicolas Island, 2017–2020: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2020–1115, 38 p.,​10.3133/​ofr20201115.

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Figures of Pages from the Monitoring and Research Plan for Southern Sea Otter Military Readiness Area
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Southern (California) sea otter population status and trends at San Nicolas Island, 2017–2020
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2020-1115
DOI 10.3133/ofr20201115
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description vii, 38 p.
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial San Nicolas Island
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details