Editorial: Humanity almost killed off California’s sea otters. It’s time to help them again

A wild southern sea otter in the water.
A wild southern sea otter off Moss Landing on California’s Central Coast.
(Jock Hamilton and Trina Wood / UC Davis)

California’s sea otters were once hunted to the brink of extinction. We can thank conservation laws like the Endangered Species Act for there being a few thousand of them floating and paddling along the Central Coast today.

But their slow recovery faces a barrage of hazards fueled by climate change. These furry marine mammals are threatened by disease, sharks, harmful algae blooms, kelp forest loss, warming waters and ocean acidification. It’s no wonder their population has dipped below 3,000 in recent years.

So it’s a relief that they caught a break from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which last week rejected a fishing industry petition to kick the southern sea otter off the endangered species list. The California Sea Urchin Commission and Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara sought to strip protections on the grounds that otter numbers and their range have increased since they were listed as threatened in 1977. Sea otters’ voracious appetite for sea urchins, clams and abalone has for decades put them in conflict with fishing interests.

The agency’s finding against delisting was based on the animals’ exposure to harmful pathogens, habitat loss and other threats that are being exacerbated by climate change and will “most likely reduce the ability of the species to sustain itself in the future.”


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It’s right for wildlife officials to be cautious in decisions affecting keystone species like sea otters, salmon and Joshua trees, whose future is clouded by the changing climate. The vitality of the sea otter population tells us a lot about the health of the ocean food web they help sustain, especially because of their role in kelp forests and eelgrass estuaries. Otters prey on sea urchins that graze on giant kelp, keeping their populations in check and helping the kelp grow and provide more habitat for fish and other aquatic plants and animals. When otters are absent they can leave behind “urchin barrens” that are devoid of other sea life.

Southern sea otters’ threatened status gives them special protections from being killed, captured, swept up in commercial fishing operations and other kinds of human interference. These important safeguards should remain in place until it can be demonstrated conclusively that sea otters have made a robust and sustained recovery. Proactive measures are also needed to help sea otters spread up the coast to reclaim more of their historical range to give them a better chance against the escalating effects of climate change.

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Sea otters were once found across the North Pacific Rim from Mexico to Japan, with about 16,000 in waters from Oregon to Baja California. They were nearly wiped out by hunting for the fur trade in the 19th century. By the early 1900s, all that was left of the southern sea otter subspecies was a few dozen animals along the Big Sur coast.

Since they gained endangered species protections, southern sea otters have reclaimed about 13% of their historical range, spanning some 300 miles of California’s Central Coast. But a 930-mile stretch of coastline from Northern California to Washington is devoid of otters, and their range has not expanded in more than 20 years because of fatal shark bites.

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Now that wildlife managers have decided to maintain the otters’ endangered species status, they should develop plans to reintroduce them to parts of the Northern California and Oregon coast where they once thrived. In a report last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that reintroduction is feasible and that releasing sea otters into sheltered areas, such as estuaries and kelp forests, could help protect them from shark bites that are a leading cause of death.

The conservation group Defenders of Wildlife is using a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy to conduct initial planning for reintroducing sea otters to Northern California, a process that could help build momentum around the idea. Federal officials will ultimately decide whether to pursue reintroduction. A successful plan will need to get buy-in from communities up and down the coast and include measures to minimize the economic harm to fisheries. Now is a good time to get started.


Humanity decimated sea otters in the past, and we could push them toward extinction again with our climate-altering pollution. We owe it to this icon of the California coast to do all we can to ensure that it survives and thrives into the next century.