The fact that these creatures are so darn cute is the only excuse some might require to help the conservation efforts on behalf of the endangered sea otter. But according to recent calculations by one University of California researcher, this beloved, iconic Pacific coast critter — the largest of the weasels, while among the smallest of marine mammals — offers another terrific reason for us to do what we can to support and boost their populations. It seems as though the sea otter packs a mighty ecological punch in the battle against climate change.
Peter Aldhous, writing in New Scientist, reports that where sea otters live in appreciable numbers and can keep the sea urchins in check, kelp forests will thrive as a result. Conversely, once-thriving kelp forests that lose their otter populations will soon wither as the urchins take over. University of California Santa Cruz professor of environmental studies Chris Wilmers has determined that the carbon dioxide sequestered in the biomass of a thriving kelp forest as a direct result of the otters keeping the kelp’s predators in check is potentially substantial. Wilmers estimates that if the otters were to return to their level of population before a century of fur trading nearly wiped them out, they could contribute to the sequestration of 1010 kilograms of carbon dioxide.
Stated otherwise, as New Scientist points out, this represents an ecological service currently valued at $700 million per the current European Union carbon trading market conditions.
Sea otters, who are native to the Pacific Ocean, are thought to have once numbered between 200,000 and 300,000 before the onset of a mid-18th century fur trade that would dwindle their numbers to no more than 2,000. Conservation has brought them back from the brink, although their numbers recently have leveled off or even declined in some locations.
Wilmers’ calculations, which formed a recent presentation at the Society for Conservation Biology’s annual meeting last week in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, clearly illustrate the value and importance of balanced predator-prey relationships that characterize a dynamic and healthy ecosystem.
Image Credit: Sstasi via Wikimedia Commons