The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s report “Feasibility Assessment: Sea Otter Reintroduction to the Pacific Coast” is now available!
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was directed by Congress to look at the feasibility and cost of reintroducing sea otters on the Pacific Coast, including Oregon, Washington, and California. This directive stemmed from language that was included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2021, Sea otters have been absent from most of the Pacific Coast for more than 100 years, since their near extinction as a result of the maritime fur trade.
The report was recently made available for public release:
- Read the Executive Summary of the report.
- Download the report in its entirety.
- Read the News Release and Frequently Asked Questions about our feasibility assessment.
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What are the conclusions of the Service’s feasibility assessment?
The feasibility assessment reviewed the potential biological, socioeconomic, and legal impacts from a potential reintroduction in northern California and Oregon and recommended next steps. While the assessment indicates that reintroduction of sea otters to portions of the West Coast of the contiguous United States is feasible, additional information and stakeholder input are needed to help inform any future reintroduction proposal. The Service does not make any recommendation in this report as to whether reintroduction should take place. The feasibility assessment summarizes known information, identifies key data gaps, and presents stakeholder perspectives. In particular, because specific reintroduction sites have not yet been identified, one of the outstanding information needs to inform further consideration of reintroductions is a targeted assessment of the positive and negative local socioeconomic impacts.
Does this mean reintroduction is moving forward?
There is no active proposal to reintroduce sea otters at this time. Assessment of feasibility is the first step in any reintroduction effort, but it is not a reintroduction proposal. In the future, should there be a move to formally propose the reintroduction of sea otters, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would need to initiate a National Environmental Policy Act review process that includes public review and engagement, including input from a broad range of stakeholders, prior to any formal decision.
Don’t we already have sea otters?
Once ranging across the North Pacific Rim from Japan to Baja California, sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction for the fur trade in the 1700s and 1800s. By 1906, Oregon’s sea otters had been entirely extirpated and — aside from a few wandering individuals that occasionally show up from Washington’s Olympic coast — the only sea otters you see in Oregon now are at the Oregon Zoo or the Oregon Coast Aquarium. In California, a population of about 3,000 southern sea otters, a threatened subspecies, is found off the central coast. A small translocated population also exists at San Nicolas Island, in southern California. All southern sea otters are descendants of a single tiny population that survived the fur trade. More information.
Why consider the reintroduction of sea otters?
The Congressional mandate to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service points to the sea otter’s “critical ecological role in the marine environment as a keystone species that significantly affects the structure structure
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Learn more about structure and function of the surrounding ecosystem.” Sea otters are also help in our fight against climate change. More information.
Why are there two different feasibility studies?
A local non-profit called the Elakha Alliance recently released their own feasibility study on the potential restoration of sea otters to Oregon.
Because achieving balance in ecosystems through the restoration of native species is fully aligned with the Service’s mission, we collaborated earlier with the Elakha Alliance to explore the possibility of restoring sea otters to the coast of Oregon.
Subsequent to the Elakha Alliance’s efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was separately tasked by Congress with taking a look at the feasibility and cost of reintroducing sea otters to the Pacific Coast. To avoid duplication of effort between our study and that of the Elakha Alliance, our report adopts much of theirs by reference where appropriate. However, our assessment expands the scope of geographic consideration beyond the Oregon coast. Our study of feasibility focuses on the potential reintroduction of sea otters to the largest remaining gap in their range, on the coasts of northern California (from San Francisco Bay north) and Oregon. We did not consider reintroducing sea otters to the Washington coast or southern California for reasons addressed below.
Why is the feasibility assessment focusing on potential reintroduction efforts in Northern California and Oregon?
Today, there are two distinct sea otter subspecies in the U.S., the northern sea otter and the southern (or California) sea otter. Northern sea otters live in the nearshore waters of Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington State, and southern sea otters live along the central coast of California and at San Nicolas Island in southern California. Historically sea otters were distributed continuously along the north Pacific Rim, with Oregon serving as a transition zone between the two subspecies. Reintroducing sea otters to northern California and Oregon would help increase genetic diversity and long-term sustainability of sea otters in the wild by beginning to reconnect the northern sea otter and southern sea otter subspecies. Scientists have identified that northern California and Oregon have suitable habitat to support sea otters, and this area constitutes the largest remaining gap in the formerly continuous historical range of the sea otter.
Why was Washington not considered in the feasibility assessment?
We concluded that reintroductions in Washington would yield little conservation return for the investment of resources. Washington has already reestablished a growing population of sea otters that will likely continue to expand southward in Washington State. Also, since sea otters from the Washington population are occasionally found in Oregon, there would be opportunity for a potential Oregon population to genetically mix with sea otters from Washington.
Why was southern California not considered in the feasibility assessment?
Southern California has abundant, high-quality habitat for sea otters, and reestablishing sea otters in southern California would help to repopulate the portion of the southern sea otter's historical range in Baja California, Mexico. Additionally, reestablishing sea otters in southern California would enhance ecosystem resilience through the return of a native keystone species. However, for the purposes of the current Assessment, we prioritized the portion of the sea otter’s historical range in northern California and Oregon for evaluation because (1) southern California has at least the potential to be repopulated by sea otters dispersing from the nearshore area of Point Conception or San Nicolas Island, (2) the gain in ecosystem resilience from sea otter reintroduction in southern California would be less than that in northern California or Oregon because southern California ecosystems have a greater redundancy in sea urchin predators, and (3) a southern California reintroduction would not increase connectivity and gene flow between the northern and southern sea otter subspecies.
How does this assessment align with the Service's recent review of a petition to delist the southern sea otter?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has completed an initial review of a petition to delist the federally threatened southern sea otter under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Service has determined that the petition presents substantial information and will conduct an in-depth status review. Positive 90-day findings have a low threshold, requiring only a minimum level of information to suggest that the proposed change under the ESA may be warranted. The ESA allows citizens to petition the Service to add species to the ESA list, remove species from the list, and to reclassify species already on the list. The Service is committed to using the best available science to inform decision-making and will conduct an in-depth Species Status Assessment to inform the status review triggered by this 90-day finding. The public can play an important role by sharing relevant information with the Service.
The feasibility study is not limited to the reintroduction of southern sea otters, but considers the overall benefits of restoring sea otters, whether southern or northern, to the largest remaining gap in their historical range for the purposes of both enhancing the genetic diversity of the species and bolstering the resilience of the nearshore marine environment by restoring ecosystem balance. We will incorporate information from our in-depth status review of the southern sea otter into any potential reintroduction proposals, should reintroduction consideration continue. The Service aims to be inclusive, thoughtful, and scientifically sound as we consider actions to support sea otter recovery now and in the future.
For more information specific to sea otters in the California portion of their range, please visit our website for the southern sea otter.
The assessment outlines a series of next steps if reintroduction is considered further. The assessment recommends convening a series of structured decision-making workshops with scientific experts and key stakeholders to explore reintroduction options, including the identification of potential reintroduction sites; initiating a rigorous socioeconomic impact study to look at potential negative and positive local impacts; developing plans for pilot studies or small-scale experimental reintroductions to resolve key uncertainties in reintroduction methods; and integrating existing Oregon and California population models.
For more information
Oregon: Michele Zwartjes, Newport Field Office Supervisor, at (503) 804-2087 or firstname.lastname@example.org
California: Lilian Carswell, Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Marine Conservation Coordinator, at email@example.com
For media inquiries
Oregon: Jodie Delavan, Public Affairs Officer, at (503) 231-6984 or firstname.lastname@example.org
California: Ashley McConnell, Public Affairs Supervisor, at (805) 320-6225 or email@example.com