50 years ago, atomic testing created otter refugees | Science News

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50 Years Ago

50 years ago, atomic testing created otter refugees

Excerpt from the November 10, 1968, issue of Science News

11:30am, November 7, 2018
sea otter

OTTERLY FANTASTIC The transfer of a few hundred sea otters from Amchitka Island in the 1960s and early 1970s helped replenish populations ravaged by hunting in southeastern Alaska, Washington and British Columbia.

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Science News cover from November 9, 1968
Sea otters restocked in old home

When the [Atomic Energy Commission] first cast its eye on the island of Amchitka as a possible site for the testing of underground nuclear explosions, howls of anguish went up; the island is part of the Aleutians National Wildlife Refuge, created to preserve the colonies of nesting birds and some 2,500 sea otters that live there…— Science News, November 9, 1968


The commission said underground nuclear testing would not harm the otters, but the fears of conservationists were well-founded: A test in 1971 killed more than 900 otters on the Aleutian island.

Some otters remained around Amchitka, but 602 otters were relocated in 1965–1972 to Oregon, southeast Alaska, Washington and British Columbia — areas where hunting had wiped them out. All but the Oregon population thrived, and today more than 25,000 otters live near the coastal shores where once they were extinct.

“They were sitting on the precipice,” says James Bodkin, who is a coastal ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. “It’s been a great conservation story.”


R. J. Jameson et al. History and status of translocated sea otter populations in North America. Wildlife Society Bulletin. Vol 10, Summer 1982, p. 100.

T. S. Gelatt et al. Activity Patterns and Time Budgets of the Declining Sea Otter Population at Amchitka Island, Alaska. The Journal of Wildlife Management. Vol 66, January 2002. Pp. 29. doi: 10.2307/3802868.

A.M. Doruff et al. Sea Otter Population Declines in the Aleutian Archipelago. Journal of Mammalogy. Vol 84, February 28, 2003. Pp. 55. Doi: 10.1644/1545-1542.

Further Reading

S. Zielinski. ‘It’s hard being a sea otter mom.’ Science News Online. June 13, 2014.

J. Raloff. ‘An otter tragedy.’ Science News. Vol. 143 No. 13, March 27, 1993

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