Chapter 8: Legal Considerations

Short Summary

Chapter 8 summarizes the relevant laws and processes that would apply to a sea otter reintroduction and discusses how that application of laws might differ depending on the reintroduction scenario and the source of the animals. Reintroducing sea otters to Oregon could involve several international, federal, state, and tribal laws and would have to follow a lengthy and complicated legal process.

Sea otters are managed in the United States (U.S.) at the federal level by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). In U.S. waters, all sea otters are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Two sea otter subpopulations—the southern sea otter in California and the Southwestern Alaska stock of the northern sea otter—are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Both the MMPA and the ESA would impose restrictions and conditions on any sea otter reintroduction to Oregon.

Federal permits would be required for the acquisition and movement of animals for reintroduction. This permitting process would trigger a review—via an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)—under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that would evaluate a reintroduction’s environmental, social, and economic effects and provide opportunities for public involvement. Each tribal government within the range of a potential reintroduced population would have to be consulted as to their specific laws or policies governing the restoration and management of sea otters in tribal accustomed use areas. Elements of the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 (CZMA), which states that it is national policy “to preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, to restore or enhance, the resources of the Nation’s coastal zone for this and succeeding generations,” would have to be considered as well.

Viable source populations for drawing sea otters for a reintroduction to Oregon exist in Alaska, Washington, and California.

  • The best potential source of northern sea otters is a translocated population in Southeast (SE) Alaska. Withdrawing animals from this large and rapidly growing sea otter population (the largest in the United States) would have little measurable population-level effect.
  • Washington also has a growing translocated northern sea otter population that spans the central and northern portions of the state’s outer coast. Although the Washington animals are likely mixing genetically with the translocated otter population in British Columbia, removing animals from this smaller population might produce undesirable demographic impacts on the source population.
  • Sea otters in California could be sourced in two ways for an Oregon reintroduction. First, wild animals could be captured from the mainland population; however, given that the population is listed as threatened under the ESA, doing so would entail significant legal hurdles and could negatively impact that slowly recovering population. Second, surrogate-raised juveniles (i.e., orphaned or abandoned live-stranded pups raised by non-releasable females) could be used. Surrogate-reared sea otters have been released successfully into estuarine habitat in California; employing them for an Oregon reintroduction would have zero effect on the California population.

While the introduction to Oregon of individuals representing both northern and southern sea otters may be desirable from a conservation genetics perspective, the potential reintroduction of individuals from the listed California population would present an entirely new set of legal and regulatory challenges. In addition, responding to, rescuing, and treating stranded sea otters from a reintroduced population in Oregon would require specific authorization from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and the USFWS.