Chapter 7 focuses on the assessment of socioeconomic considerations of a sea otter reintroduction and begins with a broad overview of the existing literature and previous examples, then focuses on Oregon more specifically. The discussion of socioeconomic impacts is primarily conducted at a qualitative level; a separate “Economic Impacts Assessment” document will provide a more quantitative examination.
The socioeconomic consequences of repatriating sea otters to Oregon, while germane and important, are difficult to assess. There are uncertainties over details of the ecological effects of sea otters because of the differing currencies by which people value the resulting natural resources. Using a monetary value system is the single most common way of conducting such a socioeconomic analysis; however, it is important to keep in mind the non-monetary values of a sea otter reintroduction and recognize that there may be no clear consensus among stakeholders.
As a keystone species, sea otters have inordinately large effects on marine ecosystems, which means that the socioeconomic impacts of sea otter recovery are correspondingly large. These effects are often disruptive to existing social and economic activities, although previous examples of sea otter recovery include both positive and negative impacts. The full range of effects are diverse; however, they can generally be classified into direct effects of sea otter predation—which are generally negative from a human perspective insomuch as they involve shellfish species that form the basis of commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries—and indirect effects that result from food web interaction pathways. Direct effects of sea otter predation are relatively easy to quantify and are often the first to be documented, in part because sea otter diets a high proportion of commercially valuable species during the initial stages of recovery. In Oregon, invertebrate species that are fished commercially or recreationally, and which potentially would be affected by sea otter recovery, include: Dungeness crab, red rock crab, razor clams, butter clams, Gaper clams, littleneck clams, cockles, mussels, ghost shrimp, and red and purple sea urchins. Some of these fisheries represent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, or even (in the case of Dungeness crab) tens of millions of dollars, to the Oregon economy; thus, the potential economic impact of even a small reduction in fishery landings because of sea otter recovery is consequential. For some fisheries (e.g., urchin dive fisheries), there is good reason to project a substantial negative impact of sea otter recovery; in the case of others (e.g., crab, shrimp) it is unclear whether negative impacts would accrue or how substantial those effects would be. In the case of Dungeness crab, negative impacts were associated with sea otter recovery in Alaska; however, there was a positive correlation between sea otter recovery and crab landings in California.
Indirect effects are often more challenging to measure than direct effects as they involve complex suites of interactions with other species. In cases where indirect effects have been measured, they are often associated with reductions in herbivores and corresponding increases in primary producers (plants), which in coastal marine ecosystems include kelp and seagrass. Kelp forests and eelgrass beds support many other species (including commercially valuable finfish species) and provide a range of ecosystem services for people. These indirect effects of sea otter recovery are generally considered positive from a human perspective. In addition to supporting a variety of other fauna, kelp and eelgrass can influence human welfare by sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide, reducing wave energy, and stabilizing and protecting shorelines. Sea otters can also impact human welfare through wildlife viewing opportunities that impart benefits to the ecotourism industry.
Finally, it is important to recognize that monetary considerations are not the only way of measuring human values. Communities based around fishing activity provide many important non-monetary values to people. In the case of First Nations peoples, subsistence shellfisheries often provide cultural and economic value, while the return of sea otters to the ecosystem may also have cultural importance. Any assessment of socioeconomic impacts of sea otter recovery should therefore provide a comprehensive accounting of the social values of the relevant communities, including both monetary and non-monetary variables.