West coast seafood industry groups are asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider the impact on near-shore fisheries as they prepare a congressionally ordered report on the reintroduction of sea otters. 

The fiscal 2021 omnibus spending bill directs the agency to complete a study within a year on “the feasibility and cost of reestablishing sea otters on the Pacific coast of the contiguous United States.” But a coalition of about two dozen groups representing ports, processors, and fishermen is concerned sea otters could devastate some fish species currently harvested for human consumption, says Lori Steele, executive director of West Coast Seafood Processors.

“We wanted to make sure to get our concerns and our recommendations on the record,” Steele said. The biggest worry, she said, is the Dungeness crab fishery, which can be particularly lucrative. Along Canada’s western coast and the coast of Alaska, growing sea otter populations have had harmful impacts on other species because they are “voracious eaters," she said. 

A letter that the fishing industry groups sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service asks the agency to engage industry and local Native tribes if the initial study leads to further action toward the sea otter introduction. The agency is also asked to consider the past experiences of reintroducing otters in southern California and Alaska, and to account for how ongoing protection of reintroduced otters might affect habitat, fishing and aquaculture, and even offshore wind production. 

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Steele said the West Coast seafood industry isn’t necessarily opposed to sea otter reintroduction “as long as the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t suggest that this is going to take our fishery out.”

A statement from the Fish and Wildlife Service said "there is no active proposal to reintroduce sea otters – it is just a concept that is under consideration and up for discussion."

The agency said its report to Congress "will focus on summarizing known information and identification of key data gaps, as well as a summary of stakeholder perspectives. In the future, should there be a move to formally propose the reintroduction of sea otters, the Service would initiate a public review process under the National Environmental Policy Act."

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