Why endangered sea otters still need protection

Update: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Sept. 19 that southern sea otters will retain protections under the Endangered Species Act.

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Point Lobos provides a safe nursery for sea otters and other animals.

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NOTE: This article was posted while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was conducting a 12-month review on whether to “delist” (remove endangered species protections for) southern sea otters. The agency finished its review and determined that these sea otters still require protections. The story below outlines our arguments for keeping protections. 

Caitlin Dols is a recent law school graduate from Lewis and Clark Law School, and as a student was part of our team that’s working to protect sea otters, an adorable species that once frolicked up and down the Pacific coast. 

Fur hunting in the 1800’s decimated the otter population, wiping them out in Oregon and Northern California, as well as southern California. A few managed to give the slip to the fur hunters and over the decades grew to a population of about 3,000 along the central California coast. 

Over the many decades, whole ecosystems have gotten out of whack in the areas without otters. Without otters to eat them, there are too many urchins chowing down on kelp. Without kelp, fish disappear. There are even climate consequences.

Fast forward to today and there’s a proposal to “delist” southern sea otters, which would result in these playful little marine critters no longer receiving protections under the Endangered Species Act. 

To be clear, in concept “delisting” is a positive story about a species recovering to the point where it no longer needs the protection of this law. It should be celebrated, as long as the facts on the ground (or in the water) warrant such a step. 

This is where Caitlin comes in.

Caitlin Dols | Used by permission
Caitlin and her dog

The partnership for sea otters

Hailing from Portland, Oregon, she just graduated from Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland in May 2023. During her final year of law school she worked with Earthrise Law Center, an environmental legal clinic at the law school made up of attorneys and staff who work to protect the environment while teaching the next generation of lawyers and advocates to do the same. 

Caitlin truly dug into the science surrounding the southern sea otter, as well as the case law of the Endangered Species Act. She played a leading role in researching and drafting Environment America Research & Policy Center’s official comment to the delisting proposal, which can be found here.

The findings of our public comment

In our public comment to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, we make many arguments for continuing to protect the southern sea otter, including these: 

Otters are missing from their historic range 

“Southern sea otters have lost a substantial amount of their historic range, and that loss undermines the viability of the species today…Species recovery envisions both an increase in population numbers and distribution – and yet southern sea otters are restricted to a small fraction of their former range… Southern sea otters’ continued absence from the vast majority of their range justifies their continued threatened status.” 

Reintroduction of otters to areas where they once thrived, could get us to delisting

“According to [the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service], establishing additional populations within this gap [where otters are missing] would contribute to the recovery and potential delisting of the subspecies, ‘not only by increasing the number and range of southern sea otters but also by increasing future connectivity and genetic diversity, as well as reducing vulnerability to…events such as oil spills or disease.’ These conservation benefits are especially important, because ‘at present, the southern sea otter appears to be limited in both the ability to increase its population or expand the boundaries of its present range.’” 

Predation is preventing otters from expanding

“Amid the 2014–2016 North Pacific marine heatwave, there were unprecedented sightings of juvenile white sharks in central California, which is atypical… Juvenile white shark abundance further increased in 2019, primarily concentrated in northern Monterey Bay. This…corresponds with a significant increase in southern sea otter mortality from white shark bites… According to [the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service], the “threat of shark-bite mortality of southern sea otters in central California is likely to increase in connection with climate change because warming waters will intrude further north for longer periods and increase the overlap between juvenile white sharks and sea otters.” The trauma induced by shark bites often kills otters immediately, and those that survive the initial encounter often succumb to secondary infections in the following days or weeks.” 

We’re waiting to hear what the agency decides on delisting. In the meantime, we’re continuing to build support for all that’s needed (including reintroduction) to protect this keystone species in the Pacific Ocean. 

We’d like to thank Caitlin for her hard work, and we’re so glad that the experience was a good one. The attorneys at Earthrise tell us that working on the sea otter comment on behalf of Environment America Research & Policy Center was one of the highlights of her law school experience and reinforced her commitment to protecting vulnerable species. 


Steve Blackledge

Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Started on staff: 1991 B.A., Wartburg College 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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