US Agency Says Reintroducing Sea Otters to Oregon is Doable and Could Improve the Ecosystem

Sea otters were once found across the North Pacific Rim, stretching from Japan through the Aleutian islands and down the Pacific coast into Mexico. At one point, their population was between 150,000 and 300,000. However, by the early 1900s, their numbers had dwindled to below 2,000 due to high demand for their fur. While the species has been recovering, a sea otter population has still not returned to Oregon. A new report says that could change, though.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a report on the feasibility of returning sea otters to northern California and Oregon, finding that it is doable. They are not currently calling for such action, though, saying that the possibility needs to be further studied and that input from impacted parties would need to be gathered.

PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK / DAVID MCGOWEN

Craig Rowland, acting state supervisor for USFWS’ Oregon office, says, “If sea otters are reintroduced to northern California and Oregon, it would benefit both otters and the nearshore marine ecosystem. Additional work is needed to evaluate the possible impacts of a potential reintroduction, as well as measures to offset these impacts. While we anticipate an overall socioeconomic benefit to coastal communities, we also recognize that some local shellfish fisheries could be affected.”

The service notes that sea otters can provide a real boost to nearshore ecosystems. They eat sea urchins and other marine grazers, which is good for kelp forests and seagrass beds. They can also improve seagrass biodiversity due to the disturbance they cause while digging for food, which leads seagrass to produce sexually instead of asexually. These, in turn, help with carbon sequestration by underwater plant life and the mitigation of climate change impacts. The service notes that reintroduction could also help diversify sea otters genetically as their population recovers.

PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK / DAVID MCGOWEN

The findings in the USFWS report mirror those of Oregon nonprofit The Elakha Alliance, which conducted its own feasibility study, partially funded by the USFWS. The alliance found that reintroduction on the Oregon coast is doable, provided there is enough consideration for certain ecological, habitat, logistic, economic, and social factors. Among those are concerns about impacts on commercial fisheries that handle marine animals consumed by sea otters, like crabs and clams, as well as understanding how habitats along the coast differ in suitability. For a breakdown of further concerns, you can find the study here.

There is not currently an active proposal to reintroduce sea otters to Oregon or northern California. However, these studies help pave the way. What comes next, should agencies decide to move forward with a proposal? There would be a National Environmental Policy Act review process including public review and feedback, with a focus on a broad range of stakeholders. From there, officials would work to identify possible reintroduction sites and go forward with small experimental reintroduction efforts.

PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK / DAVID MCGOWEN

Should all this occur, Oregon could join neighboring Washington as a state with a recovering population following reintroduction, while northern California could join the central portion of its state as an additional home to the beloved marine mammals.

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