Where there are sea otters—furry, bewhiskered and adorable—floating offshore, tourists flock and dollars flow, according to a new analysis published in Science. Add the value sea otters provide to nearshore ecosystems, and the financial gains are potentially more than seven times greater than the economic losses to the fisheries that sea otters compete with for food.
Beneath the water, sea otters dive for prey, including sea urchins whose populations they keep in check. Otherwise, sea urchins can overgraze the kelp forest, which provides habitat—including places to hide—for a wide array of fish. Kelp also serves as nurseries for species with larval stages, provides food for crabs, snails and other species lower on the food chain and stores carbon, which reduces the effects of global warming.
California sea otters faced near-extinction after the fur trade decimated their populations. Once an estimated 300,000 animals inhabited the Pacific Coast. With protections in place, sea otters are recovering and are often touted as a success story. “But with as few as 2,000 in only 13 remnant colonies, the situation is still precarious, and the species is still absent from major sections of its former range, including northern California and all of Oregon,” says Andrew Johnson, Defenders’ California representative.
As sea otters recover, they face the challenge of sharing space with a growing human population. Commercial fishing operations overlap much of the sea otter’s range, and a struggle has arisen between protecting the species and ensuring the economic survival of coastal communities that rely on the crabs and clams that sea otters also eat. “But with the study’s new data pointing to the economic value sea otters can bring to communities, we can generate more support for recovery throughout their range,” says Johnson.
Photo credit: Southern sea otter by USFWS/Lilian Carswell