After a year-long study and six months of internal review, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today released its assessment of the potential restoration of sea otters to historical areas of California and Oregon. The report, “Feasibility Assessment: Sea Otter Reintroduction to the Pacific Coast,” takes a comprehensive look at the issues and considerations inherent in restoring sea otters to coastal areas where the maritime fur trade drove them to localized extinction more than a century ago.
The final assessment provided to Congress concludes that restoring sea otters to targeted areas of the Pacific Coast is biologically, socioeconomically and legally feasible under certain conditions and that those areas would likely realize significant positive ecological, cultural and economic impacts. The California Legislature recently adopted a measure highlighting the ecological, economic and symbolic value of sea otters as a keystone species in California’s coastal waters.1
“Defenders of Wildlife appreciates the efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare this assessment on sea otter reintroduction and agrees with its conclusions,” said Andrew Johnson, Defenders’ California Representative. “The absence of this top predator from kelp forests, rocky intertidal zones and estuaries has rendered these coastal ecosystems less biodiverse and less resilient to the effects of climate change.”
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon introduced language into the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 calling for an assessment of the feasibility of reintroducing sea otters along the West Coast of the United States. Former President Trump signed the bill into law in December 2020. In the Act, Congress charged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “to study the feasibility and cost of reestablishing sea otters on the Pacific Coast of the contiguous United States, and to report to the Committees on the results of such a study within one year of enactment of this Act.”
As part of this process, Defenders of Wildlife staff served on working groups established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate policy considerations, outreach needs and other factors that would support sea otter reintroduction initiatives. The agency also reached out to fishing industry representatives, tribal groups and community leaders to gauge the concerns that some stakeholders may have about releasing sea otters into specific coastal areas.
“If sea otters are reintroduced to northern California and Oregon, it would benefit both otters and the nearshore marine ecosystem,” said Craig Rowland, acting state supervisor for the Service’s Oregon office. “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 assessment outlines a range of recommendations for the ongoing evaluation of sea otter reintroductions to northern California and Oregon, including studying potential reintroduction sites, analyzing the risks and benefits to habitats and coastal communities and developing methods for mitigating negative socioeconomic impacts.
“The southern sea otter population has struggled to expand its range northward for more than 20 years, so reintroduction is an important action for southern sea otter recovery under the U.S. Endangered Species Act,” said Johnson. “The feasibility assessment reinforces the need for additional actions, including reintroduction efforts, and will help guide us in our work to conserve sea otters and coastal habitats.”
Defenders will continue to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and all stakeholders—state and federal agencies, zoos and aquariums, tribal groups, commercial and recreational fishers, tourism businesses, coastal community leaders and other environmental organizations—to further investigate viable methods for reestablishing sea otters in California and Oregon.