The Center for Biological Diversity wants the federal government to get moving on a plan to reintroduce sea otters on the Oregon Coast.
The national environmental group submitted a petition on Thursday, under the Endangered Species Act, to reintroduce the fuzzy marine mammals to their native habitat from the San Francisco Bay through Oregon.
The idea of returning otters to the coast has picked up momentum following a study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that said reintroduction was “feasible” and “would benefit the nearshore marine ecosystem and have an overall socioeconomic benefit to coastal communities.”
But the Fish and Wildlife Service has stopped short of recommending reintroduction and told the Statesman Journal any action on getting otters in the water was still “4 to 5 years off at best.”
The Center for Biological Diversity wants to speed things along.
“Bringing the sea otter back to the broader West Coast would be an unparalleled conservation success story,” said Kristin Carden, a senior scientist at the center. “Not only would the sea otters thrive, but they would also help restore vital kelp forest and seagrass ecosystems.”
The petition, among other things, requires Fish and Wildlife Service to grant or deny the request and compels a scientifically defensible answer in a reasonable time, Carden said.
“Optimistically, that would be within a year and we could see otters in the water within a couple of years,” she said. “That said, it will take time for the government to engage with stakeholders and do all required outreach. In the meantime, the agency could immediately start laying groundwork for the reintroduction.”
The case for sea otters in Oregon has been pushed for years by the Elakha Alliance, which published economic and feasibility studies on reintroduction. That laid the groundwork for the Fish and Wildlife Service study that highlighted substantial benefits otters could bring.
In response to the petition, agency spokeswoman Jodie Delavan said the Fish and Wildlife Service was taking the next steps toward considering “any potential reintroduction effort.”
“Our next step is to engage with stakeholders, including ocean users and coastal communities, on the potential impacts of reintroduction,” Delavan said. “The service aims to be inclusive, thoughtful, and scientifically sound as we consider actions to support sea otter recovery now and in the future.”
Otters in Oregon historically
Otters, native to the Oregon Coast, were wiped out by widespread hunting in the 1700s and 1800s. The last known wild sea otter was killed in Oregon in 1906 at Otter Rock, south of Depoe Bay.
Today, wild sea otters occasionally visit Oregon from populations mainly in Washington, but none have stayed permanently, leaving a 900-mile gap of Pacific Coast with no populations from Half Moon Bay in California to central Washington.
Why do people want otters back?
Studies have found that sea otters play a fundamental role in the ecological health of nearshore ecosystems. They eat sea urchins, whose numbers have exploded on the Oregon Coast, which helps keep seagrass and kelp forests in balance, the Fish and Wildlife Service study said.
“Their presence in the ocean enhances biodiversity, increases carbon sequestration by kelp and seagrass, and makes the ecosystem more resilient to the effects of climate change,” the study said. “Additionally, reintroduction could increase the genetic diversity of recovering sea otter populations and contribute to the conservation of the threatened southern sea otter.”
How reintroduction would work
Oregon attempted reintroduction, along with a collection of other sites on the West Coast, from 1969 to 1972. Otters were released in Oregon at Cape Arago and Port Orford. They persisted for about a decade before the population “petered out,” Michele Zwartjes, field supervisor at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Oregon Coast Field Office, told the Statesman Journal in July.
But improvements in the way reintroductions happen could make a big difference the second time around.
“In the previous cases, reintroductions 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,” Zwartjes said. “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 officials did try again in Oregon, they could use a combination of wild subadult otters from populations that have reached carrying capacity, along with others who have been raised by surrogate parents in aquariums and raised with a minimum of contact, Zwartjes said. That might improve the number that stayed.
Even with the study leaning positive, the Fish and Wildlife Service study expressly said it wasn’t making a recommendation as to whether sea otter reintroduction should take place. That would take another four to five years of community outreach and regulatory hurdles.
Carden believes it could go more swiftly.
“We would like to keep the momentum of the feasibility assessment going and, hopefully, lead to a commitment to act,” she said.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. 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.