Sea otters are thriving along America's Northwest coast. The population boom started in 1969, with a couple dozen survivors from a reintroduction effort. Today, there are well over 1,000 sea otters cavorting in the Pacific waters off Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. They are expanding their range into more populated stretches of coastline. While that makes for an environmental success story, it also raises the risk for potential conflicts between otters and people.
An annual otter-counting adventure
Every July, biologists and volunteers fan out along Washington state's Pacific coast to count sea otters. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Deanna Lynch leads the way into the wilderness coastline of Olympic National Park. She sets up a spotting scope on a promontory overlooking the ocean. Then the morning fogs lifts, and there are the otters, in the distance.
"Oooh, we've got more babies today," Lynch notes, and starts counting. "I've got 21 and three small pups..."
Some paddle slowly on their backs or groom. A few forage or nurse. There's not much activity at this time of day.
Historically, sea otters were found in coastal waters from Baja California to Russia. A hundred years ago, sea otters were hunted to extinction off Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. To revive the species, the U.S. government relocated otters from Alaska. The transplants didn't survive in Oregon for unknown reasons, but did in Washington state and off Canada's Vancouver Island.
The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act forbids hunting or harassing the otters. So, Lynch explains, "Ours are doing really well here."
The local population grows about 8 percent every year.
"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."
Otters hold cultural significance
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.
"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. Pacific Northwest 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 sea urchins. Deanna Lynch says there's potential for similar conflicts in the northwestern United States.
"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."
Cute, but not cuddly
Individual sea otters have been spotted exploring inland into Puget Sound. There have also been sporadic sightings in recent years farther south, 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.
"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."
So far, the sea otters of the Pacific Northwest have not tried to bite any people on the beach or in the water. Some small towns along the coast see potential to build eco-tourism around otter viewing. Deanna Lynch says there's a delicate balance in place at the moment. She hopes that can continue.