We Otter Sequester

By Bob Ferris

A new year is coming and with it new hope and energy.  Along with that I would also hope that we are constantly looking for new ideas and approaches.  One particular area of need is in the sea otter recovery arena—especially along coastal Oregon where they are missing.  
Sea otters are cute and for this reason alone many of us would simply like to have sea otters back, but there are many deeper reasons for their return.  In addition to being charismatic and drawing tourists in droves, sea otters are also classic keystone species and their appetite for sea urchins leads to a regrowth of kelp forests.  And since kelp forests—like their terrestrial counterparts—sequester carbon, their restoration and regrowth could be a meaningful baby step towards addressing both climate change and the souring of our oceans.  Big picture-wise this latter impact is likely a scintilla above symbolic, but all great journeys start with a single step and we need to start somewhere.
Desire for otters is high, but sea otter recovery and translocations are among the most challenging.  We have seen that difficulty in Oregon and in the
 Southern California efforts to restore a satellite population to the Channel Islands.  That latter effort certainly got welcome and long-deserved good news with the abolishment of the “otter-free zone,” but those who have watched this effort for decades know that this will likely not result in explosive or significant population growth.  
I have always been a “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup” kind of thinker and one thought that struck me while my wife and I were visiting a very windy Cape Arago near Charleston, Oregon—site of the last sighting of sea otters in Oregon in 2003—a couple of weekends ago was that we needed to better use the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change for the betterment of sea otters and their somewhat stalled recovery trajectory.  (Watching sea lions and harbor seals cling to a wave washed sand spit is a wonderful place to envision creative and synergistic progress in the face of adversity.)
Cascadia Wildlands has long advocated looking at options associated with preserving older trees and therefore capturing carbon in the Elliot State Forest as a revenue source via carbon off-sets or other mechanisms.   Our current target is through emerging markets for CO2 trading in California.  So my sea lion and seal influenced questions are: 1) Why wouldn’t a similar approach work for sea otters and kelp forests?  2) Can these financial mechanisms be used to generate funds, interest and new energy in the sea otter recovery arena? 3) Is there an opportunity in all of this for a public-private partnership to restore sea otters and coastal kelp forests?
The coming of 2013 marks the tenth anniversary of sea otters in lower Cascadia (Northern California and Oregon) existing only in zoo settings.  Let’s mark this anniversary by working together to find effective mechanisms and methods to restore this remarkable creature before it is too late for them and us.