A Rhode Island science writer chronicles the fall and rise of sea otters in a new book released Tuesday.
In the book, "Return of the Sea Otter," author Todd McLeish describes how sea otters were hunted for their fur in the 1700s and 1800s. During that time, their population dropped from around 250,000 to fewer than 1,000.
However, thanks to federal protections and relocation efforts by biologists, the sea otter population slowly recovered along parts of California's coast and around Alaska.
McLeish said an ample food source also contributed to the sea otters' rebound.
"Primarily shellfish, crabs, sea urchins and other kinds of things grew in numbers, so when the sea otters returned to the area, there was plenty of food available that allowed them to reproduce really quickly," McLeish said.
McLeish added it's important sea otters be around to eat those sea urchins because it helps keep kelp forests healthy.
"If you remove the sea otters from their habitat, the urchins start to eat the kelp forest where they live, and all of a sudden, all the other things that live in a healthy kelp forest disappear," McLeish said.
Sea otters are still endangered because their population remains low in parts of California. They also risk getting eaten by killer whales, killed by great white sharks and face threats from potential oil spills.
Sea otters are protected under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, the same federal statue that protects other marine mammals, such as whales and seals.
McLeish will discuss his book and sea otter adventures, including scuba diving in kelp forests and rehabilitating baby sea otters at an aquarium in central California, during tours across the region starting next month at the New England Aquarium.