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Environment | Economy

Sea Otters Rebound From Extermination

There's an unheralded environmental success story featuring the #1 species on the cute and cuddly list. 

Sea otters are rebounding along the Northwest coast.  It started in 1969 with a couple dozen survivors from a reintroduction effort.  Today, there are well over a thousand. 

They are expanding their range into more populated stretches of coastline.  That raises the risk for potential conflicts.  Correspondent Tom Banse tagged along on the annual sea otter census.

Historically, sea otters were found in coastal waters from Baja California to Russia. Now it's something of an adventure to go find them.

 Sea Otter Spotting
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Deanna Lynch scans the coast for sea otters during the annual otter census.

Every July, biologists and volunteers fan out along Washington's outer coast to count sea otters. 

We're hiking into the wilderness coastline of Olympic National Park.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Deanna Lynch leads the way to a promontory.  She sets up a spotting scope.  Then the morning fogs lifts.

The otters are in the distance. Some paddle slowly on their backs, or groom. A few forage or nurse.  Mostly, it looks like lazy time.

Deanna Lynch "I've got twenty-one and three small pups…."

A hundred years ago, sea otters were hunted to extinction off Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.   To revive the species, the government transplanted otters from Alaska.

They didn't take in Oregon, but did in Washington State and off Vancouver Island.  Deanna Lynch says the Marine Mammal Protection Act forbids hunting or harassing the otters. 

The local population grows about eight percent every year. 

Deanna Lynch: "Ours are doing really well here.  We evidently have lots of good food.  Where almost all of them occur is along the national park and within the coast sanctuary.  The islands are part of a refuge.  It's pretty well protected and pristine for them."

Lynch gets help spotting and counting from a fellow Fish and Wildlife employee who's Makah Indian.  Denise Dailey says her coastal tribe is thrilled to see the sea otter rebound.

Denise Dailey: "I can only dream of what my great-great-grandfather saw when he looked out here.  It's just really amazing to see wow, maybe it will get back.  It's nice to start seeing the balance coming back.  I mean, it's hope."

Dailey says sea otters are very important culturally.  Chiefs traditionally wore sea otter pelts as a sign of rank.  On Vancouver Island, coastal tribes are in talks with the Canadian government for a limited ceremonial hunt.

In fact, sea otters north of the border have rebounded so strongly, they're now competing with commercial fishermen for shellfish such as clams, crabs and urchins. 

Deanna Lynch says there's potential for similar conflicts in the Northwestern U.S.

Deanna Lynch: "Razor clams are big.  If the population expands in any great numbers farther south, I think it will become an issue. The crab may be an issue, although nobody has really said anything about that currently."

Individual sea otters have been spotted exploring inland into Puget Sound.  There have also been sporadic sightings in recent years along the Oregon Coast, drawing kayakers to investigate.

Lynch says the curiosity of the otters and their novelty to people could spell trouble on both sides.

Deanna Lynch: "People see them as very cuddly, like a stuffed animal.  I mean you look at them, that's what they sort of are. But they are a weasel.  They have lots of teeth and very strong jaws. That's how they make their living cracking open shells and crabs.  And they do that by biting."

Backpackers passing by say it's a special treat to see the critters.  Deb Rother is amazed to see napping sea otters raft together by the dozen.

Deb Rother: "To be honest about it — this is probably not what you want to hear — I hope people don't know they're out here to flock out here and see them. Because it's such a nice area that is not trampled and garbage all over the place.  When you say cute and cuddly and people flock out here, then what does it do to this area?"

So Rother would be happy if you forgot everything I just told you.


Sea otter hunt planned by Vancouver Island First Nations

Washington State Sea Otter Recovery Plan

To report dead or beached sea otters, call toll free: 1-877-326-8837

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