Bring Sea Otters Back

Sea otters are one of the most beloved animals on earth, known best for their adorable faces and playful personalities. But these affable aquatic mammals are more than just cute attractions for boaters and beachgoers — they play a vital role in the health and balance of kelp ecosystems.

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Sea otters are one of the most beloved animals on earth, known best for their adorable faces and playful personalities. But these affable aquatic mammals are more than just cute attractions for boaters and beachgoers — they play a vital role in the health and balance of kelp ecosystems.

A tragic past
Over a hundred years ago, people hunted sea otters to near extinction. Before the fur trade took off in the mid-nineteenth century, there were an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 sea otters in the northern Pacific. Their range stretched from northern Japan all the way to the Baja Peninsula. But the fur trade was big business in the 19th century, and with the densest fur of any mammal, sea otters were a prime target for hunting and trapping.

The exploitation of sea otters went unchecked for so long that their population had dwindled to just a few thousand by the signing of the North Pacific Fur Seal Treaty of 1911.

Our ocean is paying the price
Like the grey wolves that famously changed the ecology of Yellowstone National Park when reintroduced in 1995, sea otters are a keystone species. This is because they eat sea urchins and help to maintain balance in the kelp ecosystem. 

Without otters around to keep the spiny marine animals in check, sea urchins will mow down kelp forests and create a kind of wasteland called an “urchin barren.” This is happening at an alarming rate off the Oregon coast. A count done in 2019 found 350 million purple sea urchins in one Oregon reef alone, which is a more than 10,000 percent increase since 2014. This situation is made worse by climate change as sunflower sea stars, the other natural predator of the purple sea urchin, died in droves from a disease made worse by warming waters, leaving kelp defenseless. 

Without kelp, many fish and sea creatures are left without shelter and habitat, and species like sea urchins, crabs and other marine life are left without their primary food source. Kelp forests are also critically important for our ability to tackle climate change because they, like many other coastal ecosystems, help keep carbon out of the atmosphere.

Every day without sea otters is another day of an ecosystem out of balance– one that is biologically poorer, less resilient and less helpful in our fight against climate change. 

Kelp underwater
Jack Drafahl | Pixabay.com

It’s time to reintroduce sea otters to the Oregon coast
The good news is that the US Fish & Wildlife Service recently completed a feasibilty study and found that it is feasible to reintroduce sea otters to the Oregon coast, but that additional information and stakeholder input is needed. We are talking to Oregonians to sound the alarm about what’s happening to the kelp ecosystems off of our coast, and building public support for reintroducing sea otters.

Humans caused the devastation to our kelp ecosystems by nearly eradicating the sea otter a hundred years ago, and we can make things right by reintroducing them, restoring our kelp forests and protecting the beauty and abundance of Oregon’s nearshore. 

And sea otters playing off of our coast will be a very welcome sight. 

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Authors

Celeste Meiffren-Swango

State Director, Environment Oregon

As director of Environment Oregon, Celeste develops and runs campaigns to win real results for Oregon's environment. She has worked on issues ranging from preventing plastic pollution, stopping global warming, defending clean water, and protecting our beautiful places. Celeste's organizing has helped to reduce kids' exposure to lead in drinking water at childcare facilities in Oregon, encourage transportation electrification, ban single-use plastic grocery bags, defend our bedrock environmental laws and more. She is also the author of the children's book, Myrtle the Turtle, empowering kids to prevent plastic pollution. Celeste lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two daughters, where they frequently enjoy the bounty of Oregon's natural beauty.

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Tim Rains / NPS | Public Domain

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