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The Controversy Surrounding Sea Otter Conservation Efforts

Despite most instances of extinction and endangerment stemming from human interference, the resulting change in impacted environments can be difficult to reverse. Not only is it a challenge to properly repopulate a species, but doing so can disrupt a newfound balance in the surrounding ecosystem. Keystone species like sea otters are species that have a disproportionate impact on the regulation of other species around them.


With sea otter populations slowly rising back up, conflicts arise around the otters’ new territories. Protected by law, loved by tourists, and popular in the media, sea otters gain a great deal of support from the public, but as is the case with most repopulation efforts, the reality of returning the sea otter population to its former glory invites a number of controversies.


About three hundred years ago, the thriving sea otter species came head to head with its downfall: Russian hunters. In 1741, the first Europeans set foot on the Aleutian Islands, an archipelago located between Alaska and Russia in the Bering Sea. Led by Danish explorer Vitus Bering, the expedition to these islands set into motion years of colonization on part of what was then the Russian Empire, fueled primarily by hunters looking to get involved in the sea otter fur trade.


In the typical pattern of European colonization, the Russian settlers discovered and exploited the resources that indigenous tribes had been sustainably relying on for centuries, specifically the warmest fur in the world. In a little over a century, the Maritime Fur Trade had wiped out entire otter populations across the Pacific Rim.


Today, ecosystems across the Pacific Rim, including the northwestern United States and Alaska, still struggle to adjust to the depletion of their furry keystone species. Without sea otters, the abundance of other species like shellfish and kelp increased exponentially for decades, and the surrounding environment adjusted accordingly.


Because kelp forests are the nurseries of many fish, shellfish, and other ocean species, the widespread effects of declining sea otter populations extend past the direct prey and predators of these species alone. Conservationists recognize dozens of fish and invertebrate species that rely on a healthy kelp ecosystem to thrive, from endangered sea stars to the rockfish of coastal fishing industries. In the absence of sea otter populations, ecosystems like those off the coast of Oregon struggle with the abundance of another kelp-eating species: the sea urchin.


Uniquely vibrant in colour, the Pacific purple sea urchin population has seen explosive growth in response to their key predator’s disappearance. Swaths of ocean floor off the coast from Oregon to Monterey Bay are rapidly becoming urchin barrens, areas that are overrun by the abundance of sea urchins.


The growing sea urchin populations are also becoming increasingly aggressive in their feeding, contributing significantly to the deforestation of kelp forests in what was once sea otter territory. Other factors include rising ocean temperatures and the dying off of sea stars, another predator of sea urchins; however, some conservationists consider the reintroduction of sea otters a feasible solution. Others disagree.


A changed ecosystem, as well as a changed economy, will rapidly adapt to new standards as necessary, so the process of undoing damage can do damage of its own, similar to removing a knife from a wound. A single sea otter can eat around 15 pounds of shellfish a day, yet for the last several decades, coastal communities along the Pacific rim have fallen into a new balance of life without sea otter populations. For populations like kelp and sea urchins, the new way of life is more off-balance, but for shellfish, fishermen, and a few other stakeholders, the shifted balance in the ecosystem is vital to their way of life. 


The Alexander Archipelago near southeast Alaska is one major region where fisheries are booming in response to the lack of shellfish predators. Fishermen harvesting crabs and shrimp in particular voice their concerns about repopulating the sea otters responsibly. Fishermen and conservationists alike acknowledge the importance of sea otters across the Pacific rim, but certain local groups push for more aggressive population control policies.


At the moment, sea otter management is mainly in the hands of the federal government, as hunting sea otters is prohibited for non-Alaskan Natives under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. This makes it difficult to control otter populations and where they subside after being reintroduced to the coastline. In response to the concerns of their fishing communities, some Alaskan representatives have been pushing for the federal government to hand jurisdiction over to the state. Other affected areas have taken unique approaches to balance the needs of opposing communities, such as Oregon’s Elakha Alliance. 


The efforts to repopulate sea otters along the Pacific Rim have been underway since the 1970s, with success in bringing what was once a population of a few thousand into a hundred thousand. Overall net biomass in these otter-dense areas has increased by around 37% in response to sea urchin populations decreasing, in turn increasing the amount of several additional species that rely on kelp forests.


Other benefits have included increased tourism, which brings in money to the state, and potential new markets with non-protected species. While returning to the balance maintained by indigenous communities before the 1700s may never be fully possible, the depletion of any exploited species could have more detrimental effects on the surrounding ecosystems than researchers can predict, and allowing the sea otter population to go unregulated in either direction is the last thing any community needs. 


With various stakeholders and community members coming together across the northwestern coast of North America, the sea otter repopulation problem is widespread and multi-faceted. From food sources to income, the daily lives of people, animals, plants, and all other living organisms in these ecosystems are affected by this adorable keystone species, so a reasonable approach to how and where to foster sea otter growth is vital. With that in mind, great strides have been made by all stakeholders involved over the past five decades, with fishermen, sea otters, and all falling into yet another new way of living.

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Tags: #endangeredspecies #seaotters #repopulation


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