Let’s bring back the southern sea otter to the Pacific Coast

A recent analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that reintroducing this keystone species would "have positive effects on biodiversity" and "enhance kelp and seagrass systems"

Mike Baird | CC-BY-2.0
Sea otter with pups.

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Earlier this summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a report with the bureaucratic title “Feasibility Assessment: Sea Otter Reintroduction to the Pacific Coast.” 

While the agency’s report did not, and probably could not, quantify how much joy people would experience from seeing otters frolicking along the shores, it did state that a reintroduction is “feasible” and “would result in significant conservation benefits to the species.” 

Meanwhile, the same federal agency is entertaining a petition to remove the species from the endangered species list, meaning it would no longer receive protections. 

What’s up with that?

We’ll dive into these two seemingly at-odds stories. But first let’s take a step back in time. 

Around the time that Americans were declaring our independence, there were up to 300,000 sea otters swimming and playing in the Pacific Ocean. But in the 1800s, fur traders hunted the otter to near extinction. The otter was thought to be gone from all of California’s shores, but a few clever otters gave the slip to the traders and settled along the Central California coast. These are the southern sea otters, a species currently listed as threatened. Its population, at about 3,000, keeps fluctuating, and it occupies a very small fraction (13%) of its historic range. 

What goes wrong when otters disappear? 

Otters once ranged from Baja, Mexico to Alaska, but with their absence in many areas, ecosystems have gotten severely out of whack. Otters are eaters, and they eat lots of urchins. Urchins eat sea kelp. In the absence of the otter, urchins multiply and kelp forests disappear. This in turn hurts the populations of other marine critters that live in, or rely on, sea kelp. It’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service feasibility report states that bringing back sea otters “would result in significant conservation benefits… to the nearshore marine ecosystem.” 

Can reintroduction work? 

Otters were wiped out along the Washington coast. None lived there from about 1911 to 1969. But in 1969 and 1970, a group of 59 otters were relocated from Alaska and urged to go forth and multiply. Today there’s a smallish, yet sturdy population of nearly 3,000 northern sea otters living up and down Washington’s coast. 

Can it also work in California and Oregon? The FWS feasibility report says: “Sea otter reintroduction is feasible from a biological perspective… [S]uitable habitat is available, and the restoration of this native keystone species is anticipated to have positive effects on biodiversity, enhance kelp and seagrass systems, and provide valuable ecosystem services.” 

Some fishing interests have concerns. 

Because otters are big eaters, the West Coast Seafood Processors Association has led an effort to tamp the brakes on otter reintroduction. Its concern is that otters’ appetites would create hardships for shellfish harvesters, which isn’t unfounded. The FWS feasibility study highlighted this same tension. While it pointed to “benefits to finfish fisheries,” it acknowledged that “questions remain regarding the potential severity and scope of negative economic consequences on shellfish fisheries in particular.” 

Where do we land on this tension? On one hand, we can’t scoff at the economic concerns of commercial fishing companies. They’re valid. On the other, creating healthy coastal ecosystems that store carbon are, or certainly should be, of higher societal value. And on that note, we’re pleased to see that Lori Steele of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association put the industry’s concerns this way: “Proceed with caution and be extremely thoughtful.” That seems doable. 

Back to this question of “delisting” of southern sea otters… 

We hope to soon see the day when the otter doesn’t need the protections of the Endangered Species Act, but we’re not there yet. The Fish and Wildlife Service set a target population of 3,090 otters. One can argue that the number is too low, but even so, the otter’s population isn’t yet stable. It’s bobbing above and below the target population. The agency estimated the population at 3,272 in 2016. The count declined to 3,186 otters the following year, and it fell again to an estimate of 2,962 otters in 2019, with no count in 2020. Until the population is stable and above the target, the otter still needs our help. 

Plus there’s the problem that the southern sea otter lives in only 13% of its historic range. The Fish and Wildlife Service asks this, among other questions, when debating whether to delist a species: “Is there a present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of the species’ habitat or range?” The answer is yes. Southern sea otters are hemmed in by sharks. Granted, sharks live up and down the Pacific Coast, but some scientists say the problem may be the combination of sharks and a lack of kelp in which the otters can hide (referring to the lack of kelp outside the otters’ current range.) 

Bring the otters back.

The otter is so darn cute that some readers may have been persuaded by the first photo. And yes, this little creature is incredibly adorable. Plus, there’s knowing that our lives are richer when seeing otters playing and snacking up and down the Pacific Coast. That may be reason enough to bring back the otter, but throw in the notions of healthier ecosystems and the climate-saving benefits of kelp, and it’s clear to us: It’s time to act. 

And as for the seemingly contradicting challenges that the Fish and Wildlife Service is grappling with, i.e. should protections for the otter be stripped away and should otters be returned to their former habitats? Perhaps they are not entirely in conflict. Let’s first bring back the sea otter and let it get a foothold on survival. Once it does, delist it. Then we can celebrate, and go to the coast to enjoy the presence of these playful creatures.

 

Credit for the floating sea otter GIF — Sheila Fitzgerald via Shutterstock. 

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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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