The Return of the Sea Otter?

Jun 17, 2015 | | The Daily Astorian

The last time sea otters were in the public consciousness around the Columbia River estuary and Willapa Bay, the Wright brothers were still learning to fly and the Titanic’s sinking was big news.

In the quiet way of species edging into extinction, otters were shot for money and few took notice of their passing until there were none left.

A century later, it is now possible that sea otters are sidling back out of extinction along parts of the mainland West Coast, even though unfortunately two have recently been found dead on the seashore at Long Beach, Wash.

It may be these otters were living in local waters and encountered some difficulty, but a federal biologist speculates it is also possible they were part of a recovering colony of otters on the north Washington coast and that the southbound California Current delivered their bodies to Long Beach.

One or possibly two living otters were observed at the mouth of the Columbia in 2009, though it was suspected they were just passing through.

Since a few dozen Alaskan otters were transplanted to Washington state waters in 1969 and 1970, they have increased in numbers to more than 1,000. A recovery plan envisages an eventual total of up to about 2,700 in Washington waters. With luck, the deaths of the two otters is just a temporary setback on the way to this goal; like all wild animals, they naturally die from time to time. The goal is a self-sustaining population that is sufficiently widespread and genetically diverse enough to survive disasters like oil spills and plagues.

In California, a separate population of southern sea otters has reached a comparatively safe tally of around 3,000.

Sea otter recovery has been nowhere near as successful in Oregon. Here, a 1970s reintroduction program failed for unknown reasons. Occasional sightings in the past several years may be young adults venturing out for adventure from Washington or California.

At www.oregonwild.org/wildlife/otter-watch, Oregon Wild makes a good argument for resumption of efforts to restore otters in our state, where the last known resident otter was killed in 1907.

“Ongoing implications for marine ecosystems are far reaching,” Oregon Wild observes. “Sea otters are a keystone species, which means their presence or absence has a huge impact on their environment. In marine habitats, sea otters help maintain balance by controlling populations of sea urchins. When sea otters are absent, sea urchins gobble up the kelp forests that many other species depend on for food and shelter. In Oregon, as kelp forests have declined, so to have populations of rockfish and many other kelp-dependent species.”

Sea otters once were a pillar of the economy in Astoria and the Chinook Indian Nation, their rich pelts enticing the Chinese to provide silks and other luxury goods that were sold for gold by U.S., British, Russian and other traders. Having profited from their destruction, it now is time for us to help restore them to their former home waters.

The Oregon Department of fish and Wildlife should get busy with a sea otter recovery plan.

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