U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Dot gov

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.


Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.


Main content area

Archaeological and Contemporary Evidence Indicates Low Sea Otter Prevalence on the Pacific Northwest Coast During the Late Holocene

Erin Slade, Iain McKechnie, Anne K. Salomon
Ecosystems 2022 v.25 no.3 pp. 548-566
Enhydra lutris, Holocene epoch, Mytilus californianus, archaeology, coasts, conservation status, fur, humans, marine mammals, mussels, occupations, shellfish, trade, British Columbia, California
The historic extirpation and subsequent recovery of sea otters (Enhydra lutris) have profoundly changed coastal social-ecological systems across the northeastern Pacific. Today, the conservation status of sea otters is informed by estimates of population carrying capacity or growth rates independent of human impacts. However, archaeological and ethnographic evidence suggests that for millennia, complex hunting and management protocols by Indigenous communities limited sea otter abundance near human settlements to reduce the negative impacts of this keystone predator on shared shellfish prey. To assess relative sea otter prevalence in the Holocene, we compared the size structure of ancient California mussels (Mytilus californianus) from six archaeological sites in two regions on the Pacific Northwest Coast, to modern California mussels at locations with and without sea otters. We also quantified modern mussel size distributions from eight locations on the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada, varying in sea otter occupation time. Comparisons of mussel size spectra revealed that ancient mussel size distributions are consistently more similar to modern size distributions at locations with a prolonged absence of sea otters. This indicates that late Holocene sea otters were maintained well below carrying capacity near human settlements as a result of human intervention. These findings illuminate the conditions under which sea otters and humans persisted over millennia prior to the Pacific maritime fur trade and raise important questions about contemporary conservation objectives for an iconic marine mammal and the social-ecological system in which it is embedded.