Sea Otters Return to Oregon After a Century of Extinction

Sea Otters Return to Oregon After a Century of Extinction

Photo: Pexels

A rare and exciting discovery has been made off the coast of Oregon: two male sea otters were spotted near Cannon Beach, marking a significant event for conservationists and marine biologists.

This sighting, confirmed by the nonprofit Elakha Alliance, is notable because sea otters have been largely absent from the state for over a century.

Photo: Pexels
Two sea otters were spotted near Cannon Beach, Oregon.


A Glimpse into the Past

Sea otters once thrived along the Oregon coast but were hunted to near extinction by the early 1900s for their fur. Efforts to reintroduce them in the 1970s failed, leaving the state without an established population, the Daily Astorian reports.


The occasional sea otter that does appear usually washes ashore dead, making the sighting of live ones exceedingly rare, KGW reports.

Photo: Pexels
This sighting marks the first significant appearance of sea otters in Oregon in years.


The Discovery at Ecola Point

The recent sighting occurred at Ecola Point, a scenic area near Cannon Beach. Volunteers from the Elakha Alliance were conducting surveys when they observed the otters swimming and foraging.

Marine biologist Chanel Hason confirmed the sighting to KGW, noting that the otters likely traveled from Washington state, where a population of about 2,000 sea otters resides.

Jane Bacchieri, executive director of the Elakha Alliance, expressed excitement about the discovery. “It highlights the resilience of sea otters and the potential for their return to the Oregon coast,” she said.

Photo: Pexels
Sea otters were hunted to near extinction along the Oregon coast by the early 1900s.


Keystone Species

Sea otters are considered a keystone species, meaning their presence significantly impacts their environment. They help maintain the health of kelp forests by preying on sea urchins, which would otherwise decimate the kelp, OPB reports. These forests are vital habitats for various marine life and play a crucial role in the coastal ecosystem, according to KGW. Brittany Blades, curator of marine mammals at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, emphasized the ecological benefits of otters. “The return of sea otters could bring profound ecological benefits to Oregon’s coastal waters,” she told KPTV.

Photo: Pexels
The otters likely traveled from Washington state.


Potential for Reintroduction

Despite the excitement, experts are cautious about the potential for a larger sea otter population to establish in Oregon. Female sea otters typically do not migrate far from their home territories, making natural reestablishment unlikely, OPB reports. The two males spotted near Cannon Beach are believed to be visitors from Washington, possibly exploring new territories or searching for mates.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a study in 2022 that found reintroduction feasible but challenging due to costs and potential impacts on local fisheries. The estimated cost of reintroduction is between $26 million and $43 million over 13 years, according to the Daily Astorian. The Elakha Alliance continues to advocate for reintroduction, hoping to pull from other states' populations, OPB reports.

Photo: Pexels
Sea otters are a keystone species that maintain kelp forest health.


Citizen Science and Conservation Efforts

Citizen science volunteers play a crucial role in these conservation efforts. Tabea Goossen, one such volunteer, initially doubted a friend's report of a sea otter sighting. However, her own observation later confirmed the presence of the otters, the Daily Astorian reports. These volunteers help monitor the coastal environment and provide valuable data that informs conservation strategies.


The Elakha Alliance is funding a study to examine the impact of potential sea otter reintroduction on local fisheries, particularly shellfish. This research will be crucial in addressing concerns from the fishing community and ensuring that reintroduction efforts are sustainable.


Looking Ahead

As the two sea otters continue to explore the waters near Cannon Beach, researchers and conservationists are closely monitoring their behavior and foraging habits. This rare sighting provides a unique opportunity to gather data that could shape future reintroduction efforts, as KPTV reports.

The hope is that, with continued conservation efforts and support, sea otters might one day reclaim their place along the Oregon coast, bringing with them a host of ecological benefits and a new chapter in the state’s natural history. Click below to take action for otters!


Matthew Russell

Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, spending time with his daughters, and coffee.

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