In a recent editorial published in the L.A. Times, sea otter expert Dr. James Estes urged for science-based policy decisions, alluding to the growing national debate on natural sea otter range expansion and the ensuing conflicts with the commercial shellfish industry, both in southern California and in Alaska.
Often the debate is loosely framed as the “cute and cuddly” sea otters vs. the economic interests of a small group of shellfishers. Dr. Estes suggests reframing the issue and focusing the debate on a more science-based evaluation of the benefits sea otters provide for the coastal marine environment. Estes claims “the seemingly conflicting values of preserving an important element of nature’s biodiversity versus our reluctance to incur the associated costs can be at least partly resolved through a better understanding of the greater ecological services provided by many of these animals.”
Along with being a cultural icon admired by many for their cute appearance, Estes suggests that decision-makers need to account for the many ecosystem services that otters provide to coastal communities. These are tangible economic benefits for society as a whole, rather than short-term profits for a few shellfishers.
Sea otters, for example, are long known to promote the growth of kelp forests by feeding on sea urchins. Without a natural predator to control their numbers, urchins can overgraze kelp forests, sometimes resulting in “urchin barrens” – underwater deserts that are largely devoid of life. Kelp forests, in turn, serve as habitat for many other valuable marine species and play a role in dampening waves and slowing coastal erosion and shoreline recession.
Estes concludes: “An ever-growing body of research shows that the ecological and economic influences of predators in nature, from sea otters to wolves, extend well beyond the things they eat.” Though sea otters receive plenty of well-deserved attention based on their pleasing appearance, focusing on their integral role to a healthy ecosystem and the services that ecosystem provides to mankind is a point worth making when confronted with the narrow economic interests of commercial shellfishers.
FSO is committed to communicating science to the public as well as lawmakers as a way to promote sea otter friendly policy. This has been our central strategy to end the no-otter zone and to oppose further damaging harvests of sea otters in Alaska. FSO hopes that lawmakers today will consider all aspects of the sea otter when forming public policy and welcome otters back to our coastal environment rather than excluding them to protect a select few fishers.