Placeholder Image photo credit: Lilian Carswell/USFWS
A territorial male sea otter in Moss Landing
forages for shore crabs in the pickleweed.

US Fish and Wildlife officials may consider re-introducing sea otters to the Northern California and Oregon coasts - and that's stirring up strong emotions.

Sea otters once roamed up and down California’s coast - from Baja to Alaska. Decimated by the fur trade in the 1800’s, a small but stable population of the Southern Sea Otter has remained rooted on the Central Coast.

Now, for the first time in three decades, US Fish and Wildlife officials are exploring the possibility of re-introducing them north of San Francisco Bay.

Lilian Carswell is a southern sea otter expert with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who is part of the team behind the sea otter open house info tour.

"We're getting past the sound bites and we're getting into the subtleties," Carswell said.

Otter reintroduction has proved a sensitive subject for some coastal residents - residents like Doug Jung.

"They remove plastic straws, but they won't remove urchins," Jung said. "They tell us they're gonna do this and that, and they never do anything."

Jung’s not alone in his otter skepticism; commercial fishing groups have spoken strongly against otter reintroduction, gravely concerned about impacts they could have on fisheries and ports.

As for the hope that sea otters could help keep the destructive sea urchin population in check, Jung said Fish and Wildlife’s effort is too little too late.

"The divers wanted to pull urchins when they can save the abalone," Jung said. "Once all the abalone die, what's the point?"

Carswell said there’s still common ground to work with.

"We wanna see a vibrant marine ecosystem, um, that supports human values and supports biological values," Carswell said. "And we sometimes have different ideas about how to get there."

Purple sea urchins have run rampant through kelp forests off the north coast since a mass sea star die off close to ten years ago; and Carswell said sea otters, a keystone species and urchin predator, have an important role in keeping them in check.

"To have predator redundancy is pretty important, especially as we've seen when one gets knocked out, the other one picks up the slack," Carswell said.

Carswell said a final decision on sea otter reintroduction could take years to come.

A second open house is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, June 28th, at the Point Reyes National Seashore Visitor's Center from 5-7:30 p.m. A third local meeting follows Wednesday morning, June 28th at 10:30 a.m. at the Bay Model in Sausalito; followed by open houses in San Francisco — June 28, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the San Francisco County Fair Building Auditorium; and in Emeryville — June 29, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Emeryville Senior Center, Main Hall.

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