California Sea Otters Are More Than Endearing Coastal Icons

Sea otter pup asleep on mom

Sea otter pup asleep on mom

This op-ed originally appeared in the Santa Barbara News-Press on May 20, 2012. Used with permission.


California sea otters are more than endearing coastal icons. They play a vital role in creating healthy ecosystems that support a wealth of ocean wildlife — and the people who benefit from that abundance.

No one alive knows known how rich Southern California waters can be with a thriving sea otter population. That’s because otters were all but wiped out by fur traders 150 years ago. Short-sighted pursuit of personal gain eliminated a population that once ranged south to Baja California.

Today, another small, self-interested group wants to derail the recovery of sea otters — and all the benefits that will bring to the region’s coastal economy — through ill-advised federal legislation that protects their narrow economic interests. They must not succeed.

The bill, HR 4043, supports our national security by allowing normal military operations off Southern California, in waters shared with sea otters, a threatened species. Neither the conservation community nor respected sea otter scientists oppose these provisions.

But the bill by Rep. Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley has been hijacked by special interests — a small number of commercial sea urchin fishermen — who want to thwart the natural recovery of California’s sea otters. The bill would force federal wildlife authorities to relocate otters that move south on their own — a failed policy that has resulted in the deaths of many otters.

This is a serious threat to the sea otters’ comeback. It’s bad law, bad science and bad for the coastal economy — including other sport and commercial fishermen who rely on these waters.

Since the discovery of a remnant colony of 50 animals off Big Sur in the 1930s, sea otters’ numbers have slowly increased — to about 2,700 today, well below the historic estimate of perhaps 12,000 animals. They have slowly moved back into some of their historic range, year-by-year and mile-by-mile.

But it’s a fragile recovery.

Experts agree that the otters’ best hope lies in this continued natural expansion into Southern California. They are confident that as sea otters return, so too will lush, healthy kelp forests that thrive when otters eat grazing animals that devour kelp plants. This in turn will create an ecosystem that supports everything from crabs and rockfish to sea birds.

A 2006 economic study estimates that sea otters will mean at least $1.5 million a year to our coastal tourist industry, more than $100 million in related annual economic benefits, and help create hundreds of jobs. If the experience to the north is replicated, sport and commercial fishermen will also benefit, since kelp forests are nurseries and habitat for rockfish and other popular species.

Commercial sea urchin fishermen — whose business arose only after sea otters were removed and abalone extirpated by overfishing — face changes. But the answer isn’t legislation that imperils the future of sea otters and deprives millions of Californians, as well as visitors from around the world, of the opportunity to discover what healthy coastal ecosystems really look like.

Now is the time to fix or defeat HR 4043 — so sea otters and the entire coastal economy can thrive together.


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About is dedicated to raising awareness about California's threatened sea otters and the role research plays in the species recovery and conservation. It's a collaboration of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, U.C. Santa Cruz, U.C. Davis, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, among others. is also home of the world's first HD live stream of southern sea otters in the wild.