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New book explores how sea otters bounced back (cuteness is part of it)

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: August 25
  • Published August 25

A sea otter feeds on mussels pulled from the pilings in the small boat harbor in Seward, Alaska on Thursday, May 4, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

The Return of the Sea Otter: The Story of the Animal that Evaded Extinction on the Pacific Coast

Todd McLeish, Sasquatch Books, 252 pages, 2018. $19.95

Few animals have enjoyed the sort of resurgence that sea otters have. The second smallest marine mammal, they once ranged all through the northern Pacific Rim from California up to Alaska, across the entire breadth of the Aleutian Islands, and down into Russia and northernmost Japan. When their furs became wildly popular in China in the 18th and early 19th centuries, traders hunted them to the very brink of extinction, and by 1810 they were all but gone.

“The Return of the Sea Otter: The Story of the Animal that Evaded Extinction on the Pacific Coast,” by Todd McLeish

The animals limped along through the next hundred years until the 1911 International Fur Seal Treaty abolished trade in their pelts for good, but nearly a half century more would pass before serious efforts were made at restoring them to their previous numbers. Currently safeguarded under both the Endangered Species and the Marine Mammal Protection Acts, there are now healthy sea otter populations in parts of their historic habitats. While still threatened from several directions – not all of them human — it seems likely the now beloved creatures will survive into the future.

Veteran science writer Todd McLeish, who likens the animals to the Little Engine That Could, has found that the reasons for the rebound of sea otters are numerous, and in his engaging and informative new book "Return of the Sea Otter," he sets about explaining them.

Foremost among the factors that saved the species, McLeish admits, is that humans find the animals irresistibly cute. Visit any large aquarium where they're on display and you'll need to fight your way to the glass. Apart from their appealing looks, they are also playful, making them fun to watch (although they can be extremely aggressive as well, especially when mating). Additionally, they are one of the very few animals other than humans who use tools. Among other things, sea otters use rocks to break the shells of the crustaceans and other critters they prey on.

Beyond appearances, however, research has shown that sea otters are a keystone species. They usually spend most of their time near shore, and their presence leads to healthier and more abundant kelp forests, which in turn creates ecosystems where sea life thrives.

McLeish spends considerable time with researchers who have documented the positive impacts a healthy sea otter population has on shorelines. Beginning in Monterey Bay, California, where the earliest efforts at coaxing them back from extinction began, he travels to Washington State, British Columbia and Alaska, exploring places where they've either been reintroduced or able to return to former ranges.

In California he examines how the animals were revived and what has been learned through their study. Among other findings, researchers discovered that orphaned pups could be saved by assigning them to surrogate mothers who teach them needed skills. Through lengthy trials and errors, scientists have also developed rehabilitation tricks of their own that have saved rescued sea otters otherwise left with no future but aquarium residence. What's also been learned is that there's an apparent tipping point where a restored population suddenly goes from tenuous to explosive growth and rapid expansion into new territory. And as coastal communities in California have learned, sea otter viewing is a huge tourist draw, feeding local economies.

So what's not to love? According to McLeish, plenty if you're a fisherman. Early on in California's restoration efforts, significant resistance came from the fishing industry, which viewed sea otters — not entirely without cause — as competition, a conflict now playing out again in Southeast Alaska.

The problem is one of human making. During the century and a half when sea otters were nearly extinct, the shellfish they preyed on became far more abundant in the absence of their leading predator. This opened the way for new fisheries to develop. When sea otters returned, shell fish numbers declined, and fishermen saw their livelihoods vanish. And while the numbers of shellfish are now closer to their historic norm, as McLeish says, try telling this to the person who has lost their job.

Coastal California communities have long since shifted economically from fishing to tourism, but such is not the case in Southeast Alaska, where sea otters have surged in population over the past couple of decades. And they aren't just impacting commercial fisheries. During their long absence, various species that otters had previously limited through predation became abundant and found their way into traditional Native diets. Being cute isn't enough to earn Alaska sea otters the love they find in California, and many in Southeast Alaska would like to see a management program that controls their population.

This presents its own problems. McLeish places sea otters in the same category as coyotes: predators that, unless completely exterminated, will only bounce back stronger than ever. Decades ago there were attempts in California at relocating sea otters or keeping them contained to certain regions, efforts that failed miserably. "So killing a portion of the sea otter population isn't likely to resurrect the fisheries," McLeish writes, "at least not for long."

It's to his credit that McLeish approaches this topic with curiosity rather than an agenda, and during his travels in Alaska he paid close attention to those whose livelihoods have been negatively effected by the return of sea otters. Like the scientists, he gives them a chance to offer their thoughts. It's a level of maturity not always found in environmental writing, but one that is necessary if solutions to conflicts are to be found.

It hasn't been all good news for sea otters. Out in the Aleutians their numbers have plummeted, and at least one fiercely debated theory blames killer whale predation. If true, it pits two protected species against each other, an enormous management problem.

McLeish is part of a vanishing breed in America, the true science journalist. Words to the effect of "still not known" recur throughout this book. This is a report from the field encompassing science, history, and current debates, with as many questions as answers. Readers will finish it knowing about sea otters and quite a bit more.

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