For many Oregonians, hearing the phrase “sea otter reintroduction” brings a feeling of confusion.
After all, you can watch sea otters swim and dive at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. And you can travel to a myriad of places named in honor of the fuzzy marine mammals, from Otter Rock to Otter Crest to Otter Creek.
It feels like sea otters are here with us. But they’re not. And with a brief exception, they haven’t been for more than a century.
“About 90% of the people I interact with in talking about sea otters in Oregon don’t even know that they’re not here,” said Chanel Hason, director of outreach and community relations for the Elakha Alliance, a group that’s been advocating for the return of sea otters since 2018.
After an ill-fated and somewhat haphazard effort failed in the 1970s, momentum has grown over the past six months to take real steps toward a second attempt at reintroducing otters.
Last summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a study saying the idea was “feasible” and had merit. In January, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition seeking to speed up the process of reintroduction.
The idea is likely to continue coming up over the coming months and years.
For a sense of what’s going on, how reintroduction might work and concerns over the idea, here are excerpts from interviews on the subject, mainly from a recent episode of the Explore Oregon Podcast, but also with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.
Explore Oregon Podcast:Momentum grows to return sea otters to Oregon Coast. Here’s why.
Zach Urness: To be honest, I wasn’t actually aware Oregon didn’t have sea otters, just because it feels like they should be here and they have been here historically. Why don’t we start with talking about where wild sea otters are now and where they aren’t compared to their native range on the Pacific coast. So where are they now and where should they be historically?
Chanel Hason: Currently there are southern sea otter species and northern sea otter species. We’ve got the southern sea otters that are found along the California central coast from San Mateo County in the north to near Santa Barbara in the south. And moving up the coast, there’s an 800 mile gap where sea otters used to inhabit from northern California, Oregon and up to Washington where there’s currently no populations. In northern Washington you can find a population of northern sea otters, and that range extends north through British Columbia and Alaska.
Urness: In Oregon, before they were wiped out by hunting, would Oregon have been just populated up and down with sea otters? Would they have been pretty much everywhere you looked on the coast?
Hason: The majority of the kelp forest we have in Oregon is on the southern coast. That’s where the rocky reefs are. So, the majority of their habitat would most likely have been on the southern Oregon coastline.
Urness: A big argument has been that sea otters would be really beneficial for Oregon’s nearshore environment. Why is that?
Hason: A big part of sea otter’s diet is sea urchins. Without their presence — and the loss of another predator, the sunflower sea star — the sea urchins are chowing down entire kelp forest ecosystem, which plays a critical role in the ocean ecosystem. Returning sea otters back in that ecosystem could really help rebuild that underwater kelp forest.
Urness: I’ve heard this mentioned as a climate change issue as well. How so?
Hason: Kelp forests, like terrestrial forests, absorb a large amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And unlike those land forests, kelp grows incredibly fast — up to 2 feet per day, and in doing so, can absorb and remove carbon from the atmosphere. So a healthy intact kelp forest can absorb up to 20 times more carbon per acre than forest on land.
Urness: I understand sea otters do occasionally make their way down here and it becomes a pretty popular thing. Is there an idea of this being an ecotourism things as well?
Hason: If you’ve ever been to Monterey Bay where there are sea otters right off shore in their kelp forest, that’s mainly their huge drive of tourism is to be able to see that wildlife so closely. This can be a huge ecotourism boom for the Oregon coastal economy. And it was in November of 2021 where a young male sea otter swam down from the Washington population. And literally thousands of people came from all over the state and even out of state just to see that one sea otter. So I think that goes to show you such a glimmer of hope for our future once we get otters back in our water, that people will come and enjoy this beautiful marine mammal that is super important for our kelp forest ecosystems. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re, you know, super cute as well.
Urness: Sea otters were hunted to extinction in the 1700 and 1800s, and the last one was killed off at Otter Rock in 1906. Why were they targeted by hunters?
Hason: Sea otters have the densest fur of any animal on the planet. It’s super soft. And so people love to turn them into hats and blankets and jackets, unfortunately. It really is a special type of fur — it’s actually two layers of fur. There’s an upper and a lower layer. The layer closest to the sea otter never gets wet. You’ll see otters grooming themselves constantly, and that’s because they’re creating a pocket of air in between those two layers of fur. And that’s basically how they keep warm. They’re the only marine mammal without blubber, so they had to (evolve) some way to stay warm.
Urness: At one point Oregon did try to reintroduce sea otters, but it was a pretty haphazard situation right. Can you tell me about how that went?
Hason: The Navy was planning to do some bomb testing in the Aleutian Islands, and researchers and scientists were like, ‘Uh, what are you gonna do about this sea otter population that lives here?’ Researchers and scientists had to work quickly and try and save as many of these sea otters as possible. In the early 1970s, about a hundred animals were captured and released at Cape Arago. There was 40 animals released there in 1971, and in Port Orford, 29 animals in 1970 and 24 in 1971. Some animals appeared to have left soon after they arrived while others did not. Although there were some pups born, the entire population declined and disappeared by 1981.
Michele Zwartjes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: In the those cases, they used adults and subadults who maintain a very strong homing instinct — meaning that many of the animals immediately try to return to their home territory. We often saw a 90% loss of animals and the ones that remained, they would tend to reach a tipping point where the population made it or not. In Washington, they did make it, while in Oregon, they didn’t. If (we did) try again we would most likely use a combination of wild subadult otters from populations that have reached carrying capacity (such as those in Alaska), along with others who have been raised by surrogate parents in aquariums and raised with a minimum of contact. That should improve the number that stayed and I think we’d have better success. The process would be a lot better.
Urness: What’s the timeline for this to happen, if it does happen? Fish and Wildlife has said four to five years at best. The Center for Biological Diversity is pushing them to do it in half that time. What’s your feel?
Hason: I think it’s safe to say that we’re aiming for five to six years based on our progress to date and strategic plan timelines. But this is obviously a collaborative effort with partners. So of course there are uncertainties, but that’s really our best guesstimate at this moment.
Urness: There are major concerns about this effort, with the biggest coming from the shellfish and Dungeness crab industry. This is a statement from Tim Novotny, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.
Novotny: Our general message has been to proceed with caution. Sea otters, in any true number, have never co-existed with the commercial Oregon Dungeness crab industry. And, in other areas of the Pacific Northwest where reintroduction has taken place, notably southeast Alaska, the results have been devastating for the fishermen and the industry. Sea otters are voracious eaters and one of the things they eat is Dungeness crab, which happens to be Oregon’s most valuable single-species commercial fishery. All our fisheries are interconnected. Damage to one is damage to all, and can have repercussions throughout our coastal communities. It is not too much to ask that any and all risks or concerns be thoroughly studied and addressed beforehand. That is prudent for the fisheries sake, the communities sake, and for the sake of the otter.
Hason: We try and have the most open communication with the fishing industries along the Oregon coastline because we’re not here to disrupt what they’re doing. We want to make sure that this is a mutually beneficial reintroduction and I think it can be.
Another area of concern for sea otters, if they were to be reintroduced, is domoic acid in shellfish on the Oregon Coast. It’s already a problem for commercial crabbers and a main food source for otters. According to a recent study from the University of California, Davis, rising ocean temperatures fuels harmful algal blooms, which creates domoic acid, that can lead to heart disease in the otters, the study said.
“That’s worrisome for the long-term population recovery of southern sea otters, which are a threatened species,” said lead author Megan Moriarty, a wildlife veterinarian who conducted this research for her doctoral degree in epidemiology at UC Davis. “This study emphasizes that domoic acid is a threat that isn’t going away. It’s a food web toxin and is pretty pervasive.”
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.