US West Coast seafood groups concerned about potential reintroduction of sea otters

Published on
June 17, 2022
A sea otter pokes its head out of the water.

A plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to reintroduce sea otters to the West Coast of the U.S. is continuing to draw concern from fishing industry advocates.

The USFWS has had plans to reintroduce wild sea otters to habitats in the Northwest U.S. for years. A bill signed in 2020 by former U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a review of the potential impacts the reintroduction could have on the region – and in 2021, the industry requested a thorough review of how it might impact fisheries and coastal economies.

Now, the study is close to completion, and a 2 June statement from the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), and the California Sea Urchin Commission claims the overview of the study provided by USFWS staff didn’t consider fisheries interests enough.

“We remain very concerned that the issues we identified in our letter last year will not be adequately addressed in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s cost and feasibility study,” West Coast Seafood Processors Association Executive Director Lori Steele said. “For example, in the cost analysis, it’s clear the study will not account for net impacts associated with losing economically and culturally important fisheries like the Dungeness crab fishery and the California sea urchin fishery.”

Seafood interests have a reason to be worried. Sea otter predation of valuable seafood species in Southeast Alaska have caused millions of dollars in damage to fisheries. A report in 2011 by the McDowell Group showed otter predation on sea cucumbers, clams, urchins, crabs, and other shellfish cost the Southeast Alaska economy nearly USD 30 million (EUR 28.5 million) over 15 years – and the sea otter population has increased significantly since that time.

The three seafood organizations said growing otter populations in Alaska should be used as an example of what needs to happen to safely introduce otters to the West Coast.

“Assuming that feasibility is found, we expect that lessons learned from similar efforts in Southeast Alaska will be incorporated here,” PCFFA Executive Director Mike Conroy said. “We must not forget that local ecosystems have evolved without sea otter presence, and absent careful and thoughtful planning, there is a very real concern about dire impacts to the commercial fishing industry.”

A population of sea otters near Monterey Bay that returned to the region and caused damage to commercial seafood interests shows the negative impact the reintroduction of sea otters has had on the U.S. West Coast in the past, California Sea Urchin Commission Chairman Dave Rudie said.

“There is no doubt reintroducing sea otters will have significant impacts on fisheries, ports, and other industries,” Rudie said. “We’ve seen it happen already in California. Look at what happened to Pismo clams in Pismo Beach and the loss of the Page 3 abalone fishery in Morro Bay and Monterey in the 1960s and 1970s."

The three seafood industry organizations said they are wary that an inadequate USFWS study would give a green light to sea otter introduction without proper planning.

“Experience with the San Nicolas translocation of sea otters in Southern California in 1986 resulted in mismanagement and broken promises made to Congress, the sea urchin industry, and the public,” California Sea Urchin Commission Executive Director David Goldenberg said. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done nothing to prove they can avoid the mistakes of the past. It was obvious to industry representatives they failed to consider the economic losses to the seafood industry, fishermen, endangered and threatened seafood species, including abalone, and the loss of locally harvested seafood to California citizens in the near – and long-term future.”  

Photo courtesy of Lisa Hupp/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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