Legal Status

Governments, agencies, and conservation groups have worked together to develop legal protections and restore sea otter populations, but more work is needed.

Sea otters and the law

A combination of Federal and state laws provide an important framework for planning and implementing sea otter restoration in Oregon.

Federal Law

Sea otters protection under Federal law primarily flows from two statutes:

  1. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) prevents the killing, harassing, capture, or disturbance of marine mammals, such as sea otters.  It also calls for recovery of depleted marine mammal populations.
  2. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) works to protect and recover imperiled species of all types, along with the habitat on which they depend.  

The Federal government recognizes five distinct stocks or subspecies of sea otter.  Two of these stocks (California and Southwest Alaska) are deemed Threatened under the ESA and thus subject to its protections as well as the MMPA.  The other three stocks (Washington, Southeast Alaska, and Southcentral Alaska) are not listed under the ESA and thus are protected solely by the MMPA.

In general, the US Fish & Wildlife Services manages sea otters under the MMPA and ESA.

State law

State fish & wildlife laws (such as a State version of the Endangered Species Act) can provide additive protection to federal law.  In addition, if a state has a conservation or recovery program with protections consistent with the MMPA and/or ESA, the state can be granted management authority over the stock.  (This has taken place for the Washington state population).  

Although the federal government does not manage any sea otter stocks or sub-populations in Oregon, Oregon law already lists the sea otter as a Threatened Species.  Neither the state or federal government has an existing recovery plan in place for sea otters in Oregon.  

Reintroduction of a species

Whether under the MMPA or the ESA, any effort to artificially reintroduce sea otters into Oregon’s coastal waters will require some form of permit, with the permit varying based on the stock from which the sea otters are drawn.   The US Fish & Wildlife Service would likely require a reintroduction plan that’s based on a feasibility assessment. The process of seeking the permit would almost certainly be subject to the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and thus an environmental impact statement would be required, including an analysis of alternatives.  

Separately, if sea otters are to be taken out of the wild for purposes of a reintroduction program, a permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act would also be required.  

If the source population of sea otters is one of those listed under the ESA, some form of additional permit or rule would be required to both handle the transfer of any animals and to establish the new population as experimental and thus more easily managed during the initial recovery.