PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Research conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service found that sea otters could be reintroduced to their native habitat on the Oregon coast, but whether they should is still up for debate.
U.S. Congress requested USFWS study the feasibility of bringing sea otters back to their historical range along the Oregon and Northern California coast.
On Wednesday, USFWS announced that reintroducing sea otters to the coastline could have benefits for both sea otter populations and the coastal ecosystem. However, the assessment does not provide a recommendation as to whether sea otter reintroduction should take place.
USFWS said more information and input would be necessary before they create any reintroduction proposal.
Experts fear bringing sea otters back could have an impact on local shellfish fisheries.
Sea otters once lived all along the Pacific Coast, from Washington to California, but by 1911, after being heavily hunted, sea otters were nearly extinct.
Slowly, the population has recovered and otters once again live in parts of Central California, Southern California and the northern coast of Washington. In California, sea otters are still listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Researchers say sea otters play a fundamental role in the ecological health of nearshore ecosystems. Sea otters eat sea urchins and other marine grazers, which helps keep kelp forests and seagrass beds in balance.
USFWS said their presence in the ocean makes the ecosystem more resilient to the effects of climate change.
Reintroducing them could also increase the genetic diversity of recovering sea otter populations and could help conserve the threatened otter population in California.
“If sea otters are reintroduced to northern California and Oregon, it would benefit both otters and the nearshore marine ecosystem,” Craig Rowland, the acting state supervisor for the USFWS’s Oregon office said. “Additional work is needed to evaluate the possible impacts of a potential reintroduction as well as measures to offset these impacts.”
USFWS recommends stakeholders discuss and identify possible sites where the sea otters could be reintroduced and conduct small-scale experimental reintroductions as the next steps.
If they plan to move forward and formally propose the reintroduction of sea otters, USFWS would initiate a public review process.