Watch: Sea otters worth millions, but not everyone benefits

After being extirpated over a century ago, sea otters are rebounding off the coast of British Columbia.
Credit: James Thompson

As sea otter populations rebound off the coast of British Columbia, the quantities of shellfish and other sea life they consume are impacting local fisheries. The economic benefits far outweigh the losses, researchers found, but those benefits are not equally shared. In a study published in Science, researchers found the financial gains are seven times greater than the costs, NPR reports. But First Nations communities, which consume some of the same ocean life that makes up the otters’ diet, bear an uneven amount of the burden. “The impact for us is fairly critical,” said Barbara Wilson, a member of the Haida nation who was part of a research team that surveyed indigenous people’s feelings toward sea otters.

Once abundant along the Pacific coast, sea otters (Enhydra lutris) disappeared in the 18th and 19th century, largely due to the unregulated fur trade. Reintroduction efforts began in the 1960s and 1970s, and as their populations have flourished, conflicts have grown with commercial seafood companies and indigenous communities.

Comparing areas with and without otters, researchers estimated the species costs fisheries about 7.3 million Canadian dollars, but their presence generates 42 million from tourists and has contributed to a thriving kelp forest, providing carbon sequestration and allowing for an increase in valuable finfish.

Read or listen to more from NPR, and watch a rare sea otter sighting in the Salish Sea below.