Federal authorities float reintroducing lovable sea otters

Three weeks ago, one adventurous sea otter was spotted near Tunitas Creek. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve Ranger Rob Cala had not seen one in the area in eight years. 

The rare sighting could soon be an everyday delight. A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report on potential sea otter reintroduction affirmed the feasibility of reintroducing the threatened species to the Northern California and Oregon coast. 

The furry critters once played in Pacific marine environments from Japan to Baja California, Mexico. Overhunting, however, drove sea otters to near-extinction by the beginning of the 20th century. Though populations have slowly rebounded from extreme lows, they are confined to only a few geographic locations: the Central California coast, San Nicolas Island in Southern California, and Northern Washington. 

The study focused on potential reintroduction to the coastal area ranging from Pigeon Point to the Washington-Oregon border. The

Fish and Wildlife Service concluded feasibility after an evaluation of biological, socioeconomic and legal factors. An actual proposal for reintroduction has yet to be made. 

Sea otter reintroduction would benefit local marine ecosystems in addition to the overall otter population. As a “keystone species,” their presence keeps marine ecosystems healthy and balanced. Otters eat sea urchins and marine grazers, which in turn allows kelp forests and seagrass beds to grow and enhances the ecosystem’s carbon sequestering power. 

As consumers of urchins, otters could be a partial solution to the out-of-balance marine ecosystem of Northern California. A few years ago, a perfect storm of El Niño warming winds, sea star wasting disease and the absence of predators like otters caused urchins to proliferate. Fisheries collapsed after the urchins depleted 90 percent of bull kelp and 96 percent of abalone in Northern California, according to a study published out of the University of California, Davis. While the Coastside region was not affected by the overgrowth, the example demonstrates the fragility of these ecosystems. 

The report did identify a potential negative impact of otter reintroduction to the shellfish industry, as otters might diminish shellfish populations. However, the positive socioeconomic effects of ecotourism and carbon sequestration could outweigh the cost. 

Cala says there would need to be an increase in kelp in areas like Fitzgerald Marine

Reserve in order to support an otter population. Kelp density in the region has rebounded in recent years, he added. 

If the Fish and Wildlife Service pursues the reintroduction, it still needs to develop site selection criteria and draft project proposals. A projected timeline of 13 years includes three years of habitat evaluation, five years of sea otter acquisition and release, and five more years of habitat and population monitoring. 

If Coastsiders are impatient to witness the awesome adorableness of otters, Cala recommends heading down to Moss Landing or Elkhorn Slough near Monterey. 

“Everybody loves sea otters,” he said. “They’re fascinating. Just fascinating.” 

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