Bringing sea otters back to the Pacific coast pays off, but not for everyone

The predators bring benefits like tourism, but eat resources some indigenous communities rely on

sea otter floating on water

A sea otter grooms its dense fur while floating on a bed of kelp off the coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. While sea otters can reduce shellfish harvest through predation, a new analysis suggests that the ecological benefits they provide outweigh these financial costs.

James Thompson Photography

Sea otters are staging a comeback along Canada’s North Pacific coast, but not everyone is happy about it.

The disappearance of otters, once trapped for their fur, allowed their food supplies — sea urchins, crabs and clams — to flourish. Now, otters threaten to deplete these profitable invertebrate fisheries, which have sustained coastal indigenous communities. But a new analysis shows that the benefits of bringing back otters may outweigh those costs, researchers report June 11 in Science.

With more otters and thus fewer kelp-grazing urchins, kelp forests can thrive, storing carbon and sheltering salmon, ling cod and other fishes. Plus, tourists will pay to snap photos of adorable otters snoozing on beds of kelp. In all, such increased sources of revenue could total $46 million Canadian dollars (equivalent to nearly $34 million in U.S. dollars on June 11) a year if sea otters fully recover along Canada’s Pacific coast, the study suggests.

Sea otters, which can grow as big as a medium-sized dog, were common from the Baja Peninsula to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska until the fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries nearly wiped them out. As top predators in coastal ecosystems, these furry floaters gobble down a quarter of their body weight in urchins, crabs and clams each day.

Safe from the capable paws of otters, urchins and other invertebrates ballooned along the Pacific coast, both in body size and number, enabling profitable invertebrate fisheries and sustaining many First Nations communities that rely on this resource for food.

Since being reintroduced in the 1970s, this population of sea otters (Enhydra lutris) has grown from just thousands to about 150,000 by 2019, gradually reclaiming parts of their range and radically transforming these ecosystems. The otters’ resurgence comes at a significant cost — $7.3 million Canadian dollars a year — to the humans who depend on the otters’ prey, especially indigenous communities, which weren’t consulted in reintroduction plans. Rooted to the coasts they’ve inhabited for centuries, these communities, some of which are 50 kilometers from the nearest grocery store, can’t always easily shift to another source of food or business.

But the otters also affect positive change, too. It can be difficult to compare the clear loss of shellfish stock revenue to the more diffuse benefits of having more kelp and sea otters, says Inge Liekens, an environmental economist at Vito, a research institution in Mol, Belgium who wasn’t involved in the study.

“It’s easy to just focus on the negative, but this study does a good job broadening the view and incorporating biological, economic and social factors,” she says, and relating them to a common currency: money. Their framework is applicable to other ecosystems too, she says. “But some losses are emotional or cultural, and you can’t put those in the numbers.”

To tally benefits and losses in otter-free versus otter-full sites, the researchers compared total biomass, the sheer amount and diversity of biological material present. “The best-known effect of sea otters is an increase in kelp,” says Jane Watson, a marine ecologist at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. Kelp forests were on average 20 times larger in areas where sea otters have lived for decades on Vancouver Island, compared with bays where the otters were absent, Watson and her colleagues found. With fewer urchins, different kinds of kelp could thrive, creating a more diverse and resilient forest.

Robust kelp forests boost the overall productivity of the ecosystem by providing shelter and food to a whole host of organisms, including commercially valuable finfish like halibut and rockfish. Overall, biomass was 37 percent higher where sea otters thrived. Urchin, Dungeness crab and clam biomass fell when otters were present, but these losses were offset by gains in fish and other invertebrates that rely on kelp.

Using these biological data, the researchers developed a statistical model to estimate the range of possible payoffs of having otters around for fisheries, carbon sequestration and tourism. The team found that with the full recovery of sea otter populations along the Canadian Pacific coast, an increase in commercial fish such as salmon and halibut could provide $9.4 million Canadian dollars annually, while additional carbon stored by kelp forests equates to about $2.2 million Canadian dollars per year, based on European carbon market pricing. 

A raft of sea otters floats along the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Sea otters don’t have much blubber, so to keep warm they must eat a quarter of their body weight each day.James Thompson Photography

The biggest monetary payoff from sea otters was from increased tourism. The researchers combined park visitation data with surveys detailing people’s willingness to pay to see otters, and estimated that otter-dominated ecosystems could generate an additional $41.5 million dollars a year in tourism revenue.

Of course, there is a lot of uncertainty around these estimates. Tourism can dry up due to unforeseen events (like the COVID-19 pandemic). And market prices for fish can change with demand. But the researchers present a range of possible futures, and in all scenarios, the benefits outweigh the lost revenue from shellfish harvesting. 

This study represents “a beacon of hope,” says coauthor Kai Chan, a conservation scientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “It shows that when people invest in restoring ecosystems, including by restoring top predators like sea otters, it can have large positive benefits for people,” though he and his colleagues acknowledge that those benefits won’t always be shared equally.

“This is a beautifully done study,” says Anne Salomon, a marine ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. But she notes it doesn’t factor in the effects of climate change, which threatens kelp forests with more frequent and intense ocean heat waves (SN: 4/10/18). Nor does it account for the deep history between sea otters and First Nations communities. For thousands of years, sea otters enabled rich kelp forests in some areas, and indigenous communities managed productive shellfish beds through traditional hunting practices. The researchers “start from this assumption that historically the coasts weren’t exploited, but that’s not the case,” she says.

Moving forward, “indigenous communities need to have the collaborative authority with federal governments to manage their relationship with sea otters,” Salomon says, which could lessen the costs for indigenous communities. “Incorporating traditional knowledge can help us maintain resilient otter and kelp populations as well as shellfish fisheries,” she says. “We can have both.”

Jonathan Lambert is a former staff writer for biological sciences, covering everything from the origin of species to microbial ecology. He has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from Cornell University.

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