THE CALIFORNIA COAST is home to many beloved animals, from elephant seals to humpback whales, but one particular creature — the sea otter — has been largely missing from the coast for more than 100 years and now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asked Congress to look at the feasibility of reintroducing the playful member of the weasel family back to its shores.

Sea otters disappeared from the state’s coast due to the fur trade and even faced extinction, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). They once thrived across the north Pacific Rim, from Japan to Baja California, but by 1911, due to hunting, only a few “small, disjunct populations” existed.

“As a result of slow population recovery and past reintroduction efforts, sea otters once again inhabit some areas of their historical range but are still absent from a substantial proportion of the Pacific coast of the contiguous United States,” reads the executive summary of the FWS report to Congress on the issue released in June 2022.

The FWS has concluded that bringing sea otters back to the California coast is “feasible” and is working on taking the next steps toward that goal.

But not everyone is excited at the prospect of bringing back the littoral critters. The West Coast commercial fish industry, which relies heavily on the very shellfish and other denizens of the deep on which the otters feed, believes that sea otters could cause “big problems” for Oregon and California fisheries and they are “not confident” that their concerns are being taken seriously.

According to a joint statement released last year from the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the California Sea Urchin Commission, reintroducing otters will have a significant impact on fisheries, ports and other industries.

“Experience with the translocation of sea otters in Southern California in 1986 resulted in mismanagement and broken promises made to Congress, the sea urchin industry, and the public,” said David Goldenberg, California Sea Urchin Commission executive director. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done nothing to prove they can avoid the mistakes of the past.”

An appetite for destruction

Indeed, bringing otters back to areas that they haven’t set webbed foot in for over a century has created problems.

Lori Steele, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, provided a letter her organization sent to the FWS along with 23 other port and fishing organizations outlining “issues for consideration” around reestablishing sea otters on the Pacific Coast.

In it, Steele describes the impact that bringing back otters to Alaska had on the industry there. Put simply, otters can eat 15 to 25 pounds of food per day and have depleted commercially important species, the letter states.

A southern sea otter enjoys an invasive exotic green crab in Moss Landing on March 18, 2011. Otters can eat nearly a third of their body weight per day, which is of concern to commercial fishing interests such as the California Sea Urchin Commission, who have documented the impact of otters on crab and fish populations. (Photo by Lilian Carswell/USFWS via Bay City News)

A 2014 report put out by the Alaska Sea Grant, a marine research body associated with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, studied the impact that otters had in southeast Alaska. According to the study, in the 1960s, 400 otters were reintroduced to the area and the repatriation was considered successful. The populations have since grown by 12 to 13 percent per year, with about 25,000 living in the region — all eating 30 percent of their body weight per day in fish.

“Southeast Alaska shellfish flourished when sea otters were absent, but have declined in their presence,” said Alaska Sea Grant. “And the longer sea otters have been in the area, the greater the decline of shellfish.”

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors released a letter of support to the FWS in October 2022 for bringing back the otters, pointing out that the county had already been “paving the way” for sea otter reintroduction as part of its Local Coastal Plan.

Indeed, the county is making a push to be one of the areas of the state chosen for the project, boasting its capacity to work with neighboring counties and its “strong partnerships” with marine organizations such as the Bodega Marine Laboratory.

“Southeast Alaska shellfish flourished when sea otters were absent, but have declined in their presence. And the longer sea otters have been in the area, the greater the decline of shellfish.”

Alaska Sea Grant

Sonoma County supervisors also said that they anticipated pushback from the commercial fishing community but are “prepared to partner with local fisheries to discuss a realistic impact timeline.” The county would also “redistribute” funds gained from ecotourism back to the fisheries by using transient occupancy taxes.

“That’s a hard approach to conceptualize being successful in terms of offsetting the economic impacts,” said Steele, adding that the focus should move off of “paying off the industry” and more toward proactively supporting the viability of the industry.

Giving biodiversity a boost

Proponents of bringing back the cuddly creatures say it wouldn’t just repopulate the area they once called home, it would help restore the California coast’s ecosystem. According to the FWS, otters would increase biodiversity and boost recovery of kelp and seagrass systems, thus combating the effects of climate change.

FWS does acknowledge the impact bringing them back may have to the fishing trade and shellfish populations, but found “no evidence” that otters have had negative impacts on Dungeness crab fishery, one of the highest value fishing industries along the coast.

“For the years 1980 to 2018, Dungeness crab landings in areas occupied by sea otters showed positive trends over time,” reads the FWS report. “In fact, increases in local abundance of Dungeness crab were greater in areas within the sea otter range than without.”

The West Coast commercial fishing coalition disagrees.

“There is ample evidence showing that reintroducing sea otters will significantly impact Dungeness crab and other fisheries, West Coast ports and other industries,” said Dave Rudie, chairman of the California Sea Urchin Commission. “We’ve seen it happen already in California, Washington and Alaska. The fishing industry in California is losing $20 million per year from the loss at San Nicolas Island due to sea otters feeding on shellfish.”

San Nicolas Island in the Channel Islands near Ventura County was the site of a sea otter translocation effort in 1990. Industry groups claim the experiment is to blame for a nearly $20 million annual loss to the state’s fisheries as a result of the otters eating shellfish in the area, and the fate of roughly half of the 140 otters brought to the island remains unknown. (Wikipedia photo)

San Nicolas Island is part of California’s Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura County. About 140 sea otters were translocated to the island in 1990, with mixed results. According to the FWS, the experiment resulted in “unexpected mortalities” and high emigration.

“The fate of approximately half the sea otters taken to San Nicolas Island was never determined,” the FWS concluded.

As of February 2020, there were 114 otters in the area, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

There is one big factor to consider that might outweigh any risks or negative impacts, the FWS said: ecotourism. People love sea otters and it could bring dollars into the state.

As for the cost of bringing the otters back, FWS said that they are overall “uncertain” but it would range from $26 to $43 million over a 13-year period.

Ultimately, the FWS found reintroduction “feasible” and recommended convening workshops with stakeholders to further explore the idea.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors said in their letter that they would be “excited” to convene the stakeholder meetings and looked forward to taking the next steps.

“Climate action is a priority,” said the board. “Reintroducing sea otters to areas where they historically lived but are currently absent could help restore functioning coastal ecosystems by enhancing ecosystem resilience, biodiversity, carbon sequestration and resilience to the effects of climate change.”