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Sea otters were historically prevalent along the Oregon coast, as reflected by various namesakes along the coast like Otter Rock and Otter Point. At locations such as these, sea otters were likely a keystone species in the nearshore environment as they are in the giant kelp forests of California and bull kelp reefs of British Columbia and Alaska (Estes & Palmisano, 1974; Estes et al., 1978; Estes & Duggins, 1995; Kivtek et al., 1998). Beginning in the late 1700s, Russian trappers, followed by British trappers, began harvesting sea otters for their fur throughout their range. Consequently, otters were extirpated on the Oregon coast in the early 1900s (Kenyon, 1969). Since then, other than an occasional stray individual, no sea otters have resided in Oregon’s coastal waters. Yet, sea otters remain or have been successfully reintroduced along the coasts of central California, Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia.

A multitude of scientific studies have demonstrated the important role sea otters play in coastal ecosystems (Estes & Palmisano, 1974; Estes et al., 1978; Estes & Duggins, 1995). As a keystone species, the foraging patterns of sea otters influence many layers of the nearshore marine environment, including kelp density, fish and invertebrate abundance, and species diversity. The absence of sea otters in Oregon not only has ecological ramifications in coastal areas, but also likely impacts our fishery and tourism economies, and tribal cultural connections. In Monterey Bay, sea otters have strong social, economic, and cultural impacts where they are an iconic symbol of the marine environment and a popular tourist draw.

Interest in reintroducing sea otters to Oregon has waxed and waned. In the mid-1970s the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) – in collaboration with other state and federal agencies – attempted unsuccessfully to reintroduce sea otters to the Port Orford and Cape Arago areas (Jameson et al., 1982). Reasons for the failure are unclear, but are hypothesized to include high emigration rates, unsuitable release habitat, incorrect source population (southern vs northern sea otters), and post-release mortality due to starvation and stress. There is renewed interest in sea otter reintroduction from the public and management sectors. Yet, any initiative to reintroduce sea otters to Oregon would face a complex approval process involving both state and federal agencies, as well as necessitate extensive discussions with local communities and stakeholders. Moreover, this process must be based on robust scientific data and analysis. Therefore, in order to better inform this potential process on the front end, we propose an assessment of the ecological, political and societal issues related to the reintroduction of sea otters to the Oregon Coast that will provide a basis for management decisions regarding sea otter reintroduction.

At this point, the reintroduction of sea otters to Oregon would cause unknown ecological and societal consequences, posing both potential risks and benefits to our ecosystems, fisheries, cultures, and economies. We anticipate the outcomes from this NRT project to have direct influence on management decisions regarding sea otter reintroduction to Oregon waters. Therefore, we envision a multidisciplinary team of students taking on this project that is adept in problem-solving, data and concept synthesis, and engaging diverse perspectives. The team will produce a cross-disciplinary assessment of risks and uncertainty associated with alternative pathways to sea otter reintroduction in Oregon. The current students of this candidate team have research foci in:

  • The interface between the ecological and societal impacts of sea otter reintroduction to Oregon’s coastal ecosystems; through quantitative analyses (spatial and regression models) habitat use patterns will be predicted with consideration of proximity to marine reserves, fishing areas and population centers, and impacts of the indirect effects of prey consumption on habitat, community structure, biodiversity and biomass.
  • Application of emerging comparative genomic tools to asses Oregon sea otters through next-generation DNA sequencing analysis of historic and modern samples in order to determine the sub-population identity of pre and post exploitation sea otters in Oregon in contrast to extant populations in CA and WA. Other skills and interests include analysis of effective population size and other indices of genetic health among current populations in CA and WA to inform management decisions of optimum source population choices and strategies for successful restoration.
  • The policy and societal framework necessary for a successful sea otter reintroduction to Oregon, including current legal and political pathways, identification of stakeholder groups, and engagement plans to understand their concerns and interests.

Although the ultimate direction of the team project will be defined by the students, their diverse knowledge base will enable research that explores the nexus between ecology, policy, population genetics, data science, and society to understand the limitations and value of science to inform management decisions regarding the potential reintroduction of sea otters to Oregon’s coastal ecosystems.

Data Access:

This team will have access to diverse datasets to accomplish their team project, including (1) various spatial layers of habitat characteristics along the Oregon coasts (e.g., topographic complexity, kelp biomass, substrate type) and sea otter prey consumption rate data from previous studies, (2) sea otter tissue samples from middens, museum samples, and modern strandings in Oregon for genomic analysis, (3) access to engaged stakeholder groups such as USFWS, ODFW, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, and the Elahka Alliance, for feedback on the cultural and political landscape of this issue, and (4) collaborative data sets on sea otter ecology and population genetics and dynamics from neighboring regions of California and Washington.

Desired Area(s) of Expertise for Additional Prospective Students:

We already have students applying to this project with expertise in marine resource management, ecology, policy, and genomics. If an additional student with skills in statistics and/or computer science is interested in joining this team, we would welcome the incorporation of statistical population modeling into the project. This added component could strengthen the team objectives through a description of anticipated population dynamics of sea otters post-reintroduction, including assessment of their ecosystem function and reorganization potential assuming population growth and subsequent space use expansion.


Estes, J.A. & Palmisano, J.F. (1974) Sea otters: Their role in structuring nearshore communities. Science, 185, 1058-1060.

Estes, J.A. & Duggins, D.O. (1995) Sea Otters and Kelp Forests in Alaska: Generality and Variation in a Community Ecological Paradigm. Ecological Monographs, 65, 75-100.

Estes, J.E., Smith, N.S. & Palmisano, J.F. (1978) Sea otter predation and community organization in the western Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Ecology, 59, 822-833.

Jameson, R.J., Kenyon, K.W., Johnson, A.M. & Wight, H.M. (1982) History and status of translocated sea otter populations in North America. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 100-107.

Kenyon, K.W. (1969) The sea otter in the eastern Pacific Ocean. North American Fauna, 1-352.

Kivtek, R.G., Iampietro, P.J. & Bowlby, E. (1998) Sea otter and benthic prey communities: a direct test of the sea otter as keystone predator in washington state. Marine Mammal Science, 14, 895-902.

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