A federal study ordered by Congress concluded that it would be possible to reintroduce sea otters to the coasts of Oregon and Northern California. However, this discovery doesn’t mean that the super adorable predators will be relocated to their former ocean habitat anytime soon.
Sea otters were hunted to local extinction along the Pacific Northwest coast as part of the fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. The creatures were successfully reintroduced to Washington, British Columbia and southeastern Alaska 50 years ago. It didn’t go so well along the southern Oregon coast, where otters released around the same time mysteriously disappeared after a few years.
Now, a key federal agency has concluded a detailed look at whether Oregon is worth trying again. The conclusion according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is yes.
“There would be multiple substantial biological and ecological benefits to the marine ecosystem near the coast from a reintroduction of sea otters to their historic range in Northern California and Oregon,” the executive summary of feasibility and costing said just released.
Michele Zwartjes, USFWS Oregon Coast Field Supervisor and one of the study’s co-authors, warned that his agency is years away from any decision to implement a reintroduction plan.
“There is no recommendation as to whether reintroduction should actually take place or not,” Zwartjes said in an interview. “We are in the very early stages of also considering the possibility of a reintroduction.”
Zwartjes explained that restoring this keystone species could launch a cascade of positive and indirect effects. Hungry otters would reduce sea urchin overpopulation, which in turn could result in healthier kelp forests. More widespread algae could in turn store carbon and feed an increase in fish populations. The presence of sea otters could also stimulate an increase in tourism.
However, the federal agency acknowledged that there is also a risk to shellfish fishing due to sea otters’ predation on crabs, clams and sea urchins. Otters have a great appetite because they need to eat abundantly to stay warm in the cold Pacific waters.
Therefore, the federal report recommended as a next step that an experienced and neutral facilitator summon stakeholders, agency representatives and scientific experts to devise reintroduction options “that may present an acceptable level of risk to all parties.”
Zwartjes said further studies are also needed, including a robust social and economic impact analysis. The Elakha Alliance, an Oregon nonprofit that advocates for the reintroduction of sea otters, is already working on its own version of that with the aim of addressing serious concerns within the fishing industry over competition from sea otters. voracious otters.
“For our part in Oregon, we have hired a community liaison person to work with communities on the south coast of Oregon, where the best habitat is,” said Bob Bailey, president of the board of directors of Elakha. Alliance.
“Elakha” is the Clatsop-Chinookan word for sea otter. The conservation group had previously commissioned their own feasibility study, which reached similar conclusions to the federal one published last week.
“Restoring a sea otter population is doable,” Bailey said. “It is likely to be successful and will bring great benefits to the ocean ecosystem and local coastal economy.”
People in the fishing and seafood industry remain dubious about this. The West Coast Seafood Processors Association launched a preemptive critique of US firm Fish and Wildlife in June, and the trading group’s executive director, Lori Steele, said in an email Thursday that all of their concerns were still valid.
“There is no doubt that the reintroduction of sea otters will have a significant impact on fishing, ports and other industries,” California Sea Urchin Commission Chairman Dave Rudie said in a statement. “We’ve seen this happen in California before. See what happened to the Pismo clams at Pismo Beach and the loss of abalone fishing at Morro Bay and Monterey in the 1960s and 1970s. “
Coastal tribes are also making their entrance. When consulted by the Fish and Wildlife Service, tribes within the area under consideration for the reintroduction of the sea otter to California and Oregon were generally in favor, with the Confederate tribes of the Siletz Indians expressing a particularly enthusiastic consensus. .
“We strongly support the restoration of sea otters on our coast and strengthening the resilience of ecosystem diversity near the coast that would result,” Delores Pigsley, president of Siletz Tribal, wrote in a letter. “We’ve been without that relative here to help take care of ourselves for too long.”
However, the Quinault Indian nation in neighboring Washington made an exception and claimed in a separate letter that it does not support further reintroductions of sea otters, even at a distance to the south. Quinault Nation President Guy Capoeman wrote that he was concerned that sea otters, once established off the Oregon coast, would expand their range north and threaten the survival of the razor clam and Dungeness crab populations they depend on. tribal fishermen.
The confluence of biological and human variables led Zwartjes and Bailey to independently describe a working concept for limited and targeted reintroduction in some strategic locations along the coast, should plans go ahead.
“That could result in a few hundred sea otters in the next few decades, not thousands of sea otters,” Zwartjes said. “So, we believe these impacts would be relatively localized.”
Individual Washington sea otters occasionally drift south into Oregon waters, but they haven’t been around for long. Washington is home to some 2,300 sea otters along the outer coast and the western strait of Juan de Fuca. The northern California population expansion has been blocked by a “shark alley” around Half Moon Bay. The USFWS report states that shark bites are a leading cause of mortality for threatened California sea otters.
Zwartjes said there was “virtually no chance” of colonization of the vacant otter territory along the northern coasts of California and Oregon through natural range expansion within the next 10 years.