In the coastal regions of North America, the otter fur trade was a major economic force for a long time. Throughout what is now the northern US and Canada, sea otters were incredibly important for the economy. Their populations before European arrival were booming, and like many things on the North American continent, European settlers couldn’t imagine their numbers would ever decline.
However, that did happen, and as hunting and trapping technology got better, otter populations were decimated, so much so that they only inhabit a small fraction of their former range. They made up an incredibly important part of the local ecosystem, as they consume sea urchins, which unchecked decimate the kelp forests and seagrass meadows. This is why a conservation group in the US called the Center for Biological Diversity has called upon the US Fish and Wildlife Service to begin a comprehensive reintroduction program for the sea otter.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, fur was an incredibly important part of the economies of what is now Canada and America. All along the coastline, fur traders set up outposts to bring their product, fur, to market. These outposts grew and, in time, became the towns many North Americans call home. This all came at a steep cost for the otter and beaver, mink, fox, and other animals indigenous to North America. By the onset of the 20th century, otters had disappeared from the wide swaths of marine areas they once called home. In North America, they only inhabit a small portion of Southern California, Washington, and Northern Alaska.
Sea otters are considered a keystone species, meaning their lack of presence ultimately has a domino effect on the rest of the ecosystem—the reason why comes down to sea urchins and kelp. Kelp forests and seagrass meadows are crucial to the marine ecosystem, as they sequester carbon, provide an important nutrition source for many animals, and filter the water.
Sea urchins feed on kelp, and their populations have greatly increased as their natural predator, the sea otter, has been hunted to near extinction. This explosion of sea urchin populations has decimated the kelp forests in areas where sea otters have been hunted. Scientists have long held concerns that they will never recover fully, even if the reintroduction of otters were to occur. However, the kelp forests and seagrass meadows have been doing fine in areas where sea otter populations have been protected.
That is why the Center for Biological Diversity, based out of Tucson, Arizona, is petitioning the US Fish and Wildlife Service to begin a comprehensive reintroduction campaign in Northern California and Oregon. Reintroduction campaigns are also not unprecedented, as there has been success in increasing otter populations in localized areas along the American coast.
Many feel a large sense of loss regarding the destruction of animal species and their environment as a whole. However, it is important to channel this energy into activities and efforts that further the goal of conservation and restoration rather than sink into complacency and apathy. What prior environmentalists and conservation groups have shown with their actions is that with time, money, and effort, the reintroduced species can thrive again.
Ultimately, we got our world and our animal friends into this mess to begin with. It’s up to us to fix it as well, as we don’t have the time to wait around hoping it might get better. We have so much to do it can seem overwhelming. But if the reintroduction of sea otters into its historical range is possible, it would be a resounding moral and ecological success.