The next steps to protect sea otters

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that southern sea otters still need endangered species protections. How do we get to the point where otters no longer need it?


A sea otter enjoying their time in a kelp forest

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently determined that southern sea otters still need endangered species protections. What will it take to get them to the point where they’re considered recovered, and what are the actions needed? 

As background, sea otters once lived and played all along the Pacific Coast, from Baja California in Mexico to the waters of Alaska. Hundreds of thousands of them kept marine ecosystems in balance. In California today, only about 3,000 of them live along the central coast, and they’re missing along the Oregon coast. Along Washington’s coast, northern sea otters were successfully reintroduced to the state in 1969 and 1970. 

How do we fully recover these adorable animals, i.e. get them to a place where they no longer need federal Endangered Species Act protections? Read below. 

Bonnie Moreland | Public Domain
We want to live in a world where otters once again frolic along Oregon's coastline.

Four steps needed to protect sea otters

  1. Reintroduce otters. These playful creatures are missing along far too much of the Pacific coastline. We’ve learned that reintroduction worked in Washington. Today, otters can and should be reintroduced to other areas where they are missing, such as Northern California and all of Oregon. In 2022, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife determined that reintroduction would be “feasible” and “would result in significant conservation benefits to the species.” Let’s do this.
  2. Restore kelp. Kelp and otters go hand in hand. Otters eat lots of sea urchins, which consume a lot of kelp. And kelp provides a safe habitat for otters and so many other species. The state of Washington has a plan to preserve 10,000 acres of kelp off the state’s coastline by 2040. (Side note: NOAA made $240 million available from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act for “habitat restoration and coastal resilience,” and this seems a perfect fit.) More states should adopt kelp protection plans, which helps many other species.
  3. If needed, stand up for the species in court. Some are concerned about the presence of otters and perhaps even more concerned about their expansion in terms of overall numbers and range. We understand these concerns; they do eat a lot of shellfish. But the benefits – including carbon storage that results from healthier, kelp-filled ecosystems – outweigh any fishing concerns. If the decision to keep the species protected should be challenged, we’ll need the Biden administration to stand up for the otters.
  4. Fund wildlife conservation. The U.S. Congress should pass the bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would send funding to every state, territory and the District of Columbia to protect at-risk species. In California, the southern sea otter is one of the at-risk species covered in the state’s wildlife action plan. In the Washington state wildlife action plan, the northern sea otter is a species of greatest conservation. This bill is necessary to help the states actually do the conservation work. 

The fur trade wiped out the species in Oregon and, except for a few wily ones, did the same in California. Together, we have a chance to atone for these past mistakes. Let’s take these steps to protect otters and fully recover this species. Let’s live in a world where we can watch these furballs frolic up and down the coast. 


Steve Blackledge

Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America

Steve directs Environment America’s efforts to protect our public lands and waters and the species that depend on them. He led our successful campaign to win full and permanent funding for our nation’s best conservation and recreation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He previously oversaw U.S. PIRG’s public health campaigns. Steve lives in Sacramento, California, with his family, where he enjoys biking and exploring Northern California.

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