Sea Otter Study Points to Reintroduction Feasibility

Sea otters in the Gulf of Alaska, where populations have been restored. /photo by Kedar Gadge, Unsplash.com
Sea otters in the Gulf of Alaska, where populations have been restored. /photo by Kedar Gadge, Unsplash.com

On July 27, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released a report to Congress supporting the feasibility of reintroducing sea otters to their historic range on the Pacific coast, including Oregon, Washington, and California. The report was required by Public Law 116-260, introduced at the request of Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and enacted by Congress in late December 2020. This study was commissioned because the USFWS acknowledges the species’ “critical ecological role in the marine environment as a keystone species that significantly affects the structure  and function of the surrounding ecosystem.”

An Oregon nonprofit, the Elakha Alliance, comprised of tribal leaders, conservation experts, and concerned citizens, has been working to establish a step-by-step plan to reintroduce otters. Oregon Shores was a founding member of the Alliance and continues to support its work actively. Prior to the USFWS report, the Elakha Alliance conducted and released its own feasibility study in January 2022. Information and research gathered by the Alliance were cited and expanded upon by the USFWS to expedite the completion of their assessment. 

Sea otters have been absent from Oregon waters for more than 100 years. Due to their uniquely dense pelts, otters were hunted to near-extinction in the late 1800s, the height of the maritime fur trade. Before the colonial commercial fur traders discovered them, otters played an essential part in many of the indigenous cultures that have inhabited Oregon’s coast for millennia. Much of our insight into the history of Oregon’s sea otters comes from tribal members sharing their ancestors’ stories. Archaeological excavations have also found otter bones among other artifacts from indigenous communities, demonstrating the importance of sea otters to native people and revealing clues to the ecosystem's health from that time. 

With otters missing, the kelp forest ecosystems along the Oregon coast have been in steady decline. Sea otters are a keystone species, meaning their presence helps maintain the ecosystem's biodiversity, influencing the abundance and type of other species in a habitat. Unfortunately, the absence of otters as predators has contributed to a population boom of purple sea urchins, which devour kelp at an alarming rate. In addition, another predator of the urchin, sea stars, sharply declined due to a catastrophic outbreak of sea star wasting syndrome that hit the West Coast from Mexico to Alaska in 2013, the results of which are still seen today. This loss exacerbated the overabundance of urchins, leading to a more significant decline in kelp.

Scientists agree that restoring kelp forest ecosystems is a step we can take to combat global climate change, which is primarily driven by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to human activities. Anthropogenic causes include both the burning of fossil fuels and the elimination of vast swaths of vegetation. Plants take up carbon dioxide as they grow, so fostering an increase in vegetation is one way to address climate change. Reforestation on land is perhaps the best-known strategy, but coastal marshes, seagrasses, and kelp forests are also important carbon sinks. As kelp grows, it sequesters carbon dioxide and removes it from the atmosphere, helping the planet to become more resilient in the face of a changing climate.

While the USFWS report is not a recommendation, it does conclude that reintroducing sea otters is possible and would have significant conservation and ecological benefits. For reintroduction to move forward, there needs to be public support for the effort. You can help by spreading the word about the Alliance’s mission, donating to the cause, and expressing your support to community and civic leaders. Oregon Shores’ Ocean Program will continue to advocate for this outcome. To learn more about the Elakha Alliances efforts, you can visit the Elakha Alliance website and look for more information on Sea Otter Awareness Week, coming Sept. 18-24.