Skip to Content
County Administrator's Office

For Immediate Release

Sonoma County hosts summit on potential reintroduction of sea otters to the North Coast

SANTA ROSA, CA | May 26, 2023

Marine biologists, economists, tribal representatives, elected leaders as well as local environmental advocates and other stakeholders are taking part in a conference in Bodega Bay today to explore the possibility and impacts of reintroducing southern sea otters to their former habitat on the Sonoma Coast.

Reintroduction is a conservation tool to help a species expand its range into areas it historically occupied and confer critical ecological benefits to those areas. Recent studies including “Feasibility Assessment: Sea Otter Reintroduction to the Pacific Coast,” published by U.S. Fish and Wildlife in 2022, have concluded that the reintroduction of the sea otter would have significant benefits to a variety of species in the marine ecosystem and would enable the recovery of the threatened southern sea otter. A study published in 2019 in PeerJ: the Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences concluded that the sea otter population in California could more than triple over several decades if sea otters repopulated San Francisco Bay, the largest estuary on the coast.

Panelists for today’s summit include Dr. Brent Hughes of Sonoma State University, lead researcher of the study published in PeerJ; Dr. Edward Gregr of the University of British Columbia; Dr. M. Tim Tinker, consulting research wildlife biologist and adjunct professor at UC Santa Cruz; Dr. Lilian Carswell of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Gena Bentall, director and senior scientist at Sea Otter Savvy; Jessica Fujii, manager of the Sea Otter Program at Monterey Bay Aquarium; Dr. Joshua Smith, ocean conservation research scientist at Monterey Bay Aquarium; and Brian Vander Naald, associate professor of economics at Drake University. The forum also includes author Greg Sarris, chair of The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria; Reno Keoni Franklin, chair of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians; Ethan Brown, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board; Sonoma County commercial fisherman Richard Ogg and Heather Barrett, science communications director and research scientist at Sea Otter Savvy. Rep. Jared Huffman served as a special guest speaker while Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who took the lead in organizing the forum, provided welcoming remarks along with tribal leaders Greg Sarris and Reno Keoni Franklin

“What we know is that sea otter populations were robust along the California coast until they were decimated by the expansive fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries,” said Supervisor Hopkins. “Now studies are showing that, with some help, sea otters could once again thrive along the North Coast. This forum is an opportunity to explore what sea otter reintroduction could look like on the Sonoma Coast.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with communities across Northern California and Oregon to explore the concept of reintroducing sea otters to portions of the coast. Under a directive from Congress, the service examined the feasibility of reintroducing sea otters to Northern California and Oregon, resulting in the report, “Feasibility Assessment: Sea Otter Reintroduction to the Pacific Coast” last year. The assessment concluded reintroduction would have significant benefits to a variety of species in the marine ecosystem and expedite the recovery of the threatened southern sea otter. 

“As a keystone species, sea otters play a fundamental role in the natural food web, keeping important elements of coastal ecosystems--like kelp forests and seagrass beds – in balance,” said Lilian Carswell, southern sea otter recovery and marine conservation coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Exploring sea otter reintroduction to portions of their historical range in Northern California and Oregon will require thoughtful input from Tribes and a broad range of stakeholders, and we look forward to hearing from local communities as we explore the concept further.”

Sea otters are considered ecosystem engineers that help restore degraded coastal ecosystems. A healthy sea otter presence can improve habitat health, enhance biodiversity, and make coastal habitats more resilient to the effects of climate change. Additional benefits include:

  • Positive impacts on businesses and local communities that benefit from ecotourism.
  • Carbon sequestration by maintaining healthy kelp forests and eelgrass beds, which protect coastal communities from climate change's impacts by mitigating sea level rise and extreme weather events.
  • Increasing the population and geographical range of southern sea otters, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“It's been centuries since sea otters were virtually wiped out in our region, but studies show we have a chance to successfully reintroduce these beloved and important creatures to the North Coast,” said Rep. Huffman. “Times have changed since the sea otters populated our coast, and so has the environment. We need to consider how to best reintroduce them in the 21st century with the current and future ocean conditions so they – and the ecosystems they benefit – can thrive. This forum is one of the many touch points where we can explore what it will take to make that a reality.”

The process to prepare for and permit a reintroduction project is lengthy, so any release of sea otters could take a few to several years. A reintroduction project would use rehabilitated sea otters, wild-caught sea otters, or a hybrid of both. While reintroduction has been successful in other locations, sea otters would still face obstacles in their reintroduction along the North Coast including threats from great white sharks, infectious diseases and human activities.

Future discussions and evaluations surrounding potential sea otter reintroductions will focus on maximizing the benefits sea otters could bring to all Californians while minimizing and mitigating negative impacts. A recording of the summit will be made available soon on the Sonoma County YouTube channel.

Media Contact: 
Paul Gullixson, Communications Manager
(707) 565-3040 or (707) 494-3329
575 Administration Drive, Suite 104A
Santa Rosa, CA 95403