The southern sea otter’s talents are well-documented.
They’ve got the thickest fur on the planet, chow through the equivalent of a fourth of their body weight on a daily basis, and dive as deep as 250 feet, staying under for as long as five minutes.
They’re also what’s known as a “keystone species” because they play a vital role in keeping coastal ecosystems in balance.
But no one had looked at otters as an economic driver until a recent study, which was completed with the help of then Middlebury Institute students.
The study, titled “The Economic Value of Sea Otters and Recreational Tourism in a California Estuary,” represents a joint project between Monterey Bay Aquarium and Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
When they were students, Environmental Policy graduates Jeremy Ginsberg MAIEP ’20 and Chiao Ting MAIEP ’20, International Policy and Development graduate Josh Bryan MAIPD ’22, and Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies graduate Conner Freeman MANPTS ’19 fanned out across Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough, interviewing visitors about where they stayed, what they spent, and whether they’d seen otters.
“It was interesting meeting with people coming back from tours and hikes and seeing them light up talking about their experiences,” said Bryan. “You could tell it was really memorable for them.”
What many don’t know is that due to hunting, otters were nearly gone from this area in the early 1900s.
Today, Elkhorn Slough, California’s largest estuary besides the San Francisco Bay, enjoys a wealth of wildlife, including leopard sharks, bat rays, harbor seals, sea lions, and hundreds of birds like American white pelicans, Caspian terns, and white-tailed sea kites.
But otters definitely top the list for most visitors.
“It is a uniquely great place to see otters, because you cannot only easily observe them from shore, you can paddle through their habitat by kayak, or see them from your tour boat,” said the study’s designer and principal investigator, Charles Cogan, of Middlebury’s Center for the Blue Economy. “You almost always see some otters on any of your trips.”
Species conservation research often focuses on what benefits otters or other species provide to the wider ecosystem, but this study specifically finds that “documenting economic benefits is also key for connecting with a diverse group of stakeholders.”
The bottom line: The study found each year visitors contributed approximately $3.2 million in direct spending, with an additional $1.85 million in indirect economic gains, which fueled more than 300 full-time, part-time, and seasonal jobs to the region.
“Whether sea otters were observed during a trip influenced how visitors ranked their importance, and the perceived value of the estuary and sea otters,” the study’s conclusions read. “Combined, this study quantified what recreational visitors could contribute to local economies and that sea otters play a role in what visitors value about their visit.”
That information equips Aquarium experts with helpful context when it comes to reestablishing otters in places where they’ve thrived historically but have seen populations crash, like Morro Bay and San Francisco Bay.
The effort proves more challenging than many might realize. As cute as otters might be, they can also compete with humans for shellfish, so some fishermen openly oppose reintroduction.
Colgan hopes the recent research helps put that in context.
“The main point from the study was not so much the dollar value, though that’s always intriguing,” he said, “but how the restoration of a species, once abundant, then largely extirpated, now is back and has great economic value that creates a whole recreational opportunity.”
At least one student appreciated the opportunity to work on a project here in Monterey.
“It gave me more context for the area, integrating with the community, learning about the landscape and different aspects,” said Bryan. “I wasn’t siloed to campus, but got to experience other things about this area.”