In a world where climate policy usually moves at the speed of a sea slug rather than that of a sailfish, sea otters are quietly having a positive influence on climate change mitigation…on their own terms. A recent study published by UC Santa Cruz scientists, Jim Estes and Chris Wilmers, found that sea otters are contributing heavily to the uphill battle against climate change. How is this possible, you ask?
To understand, we have to dive deeper, and examine the intricacy of our ocean’s capabilities. Similar to jungles and trees, kelp forests help sequester carbon from the atmosphere, slowing the atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gasses. This is a very powerful component of kelp forests, which also harbor a vast array of marine life. But much like bulldozers in the Amazon, kelp forests have their threats as well. What could pose such a threat? Sea urchins, ravenous creatures that devastate kelp beds, not only destroy habitats for marine life living amongst kelp forest, but can now be considered facilitators in accelerating climate change. These animals are capable of doing extreme damage to kelp forests in very small time frames.
Enter the Otter
Sea otters have long been considered protectors of the kelp forests, and for good reason. The sea otter’s diet relies heavily on sea urchins that can consume 30 feet of kelp forest in less than a month. So what does this underwater relationship look like? Simply put: the sea otter consumes the sea urchin which indirectly results in safeguarding the kelp forests (that harbor life and also sequestrate carbon). The higher the otter populations, the denser the kelp forests; the denser kelp forests, the more carbon captured. The study shows that kelp forests that have flourishing otter populations are capable of absorbing 12 times more carbon than areas that were not overpopulated with sea urchins. Although their new role as a “global warming warriors” might be new to them, this study shows that the vital role sea otters play in their underwater ecosystems now transcends the ocean and impacts the entire planet. Conserving and restoring otter populations makes for a healthier planet. Read more about the study here.