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Can Sea Otters Save the Planet? - Sierra Daily
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Sierra Daily

Apr 19, 2011

Can Sea Otters Save the Planet?

GR_02 OK, seems unlikely (although it worked for whales in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). But according to Chris Wilmers at the University of California at Santa Cruz, otters perform an exceptionally valuable service by maintaining a healthy kelp ecosystem: The otters eat kelp-devouring sea urchins, allowing kelp forests to act as carbon sinks, locking up 0.18 kg of carbon for every square meter of coast otters inhabit. Wilmers and his colleagues estimate that were sea otters restored to healthy populations in North America, "they could collectively lock up a mammoth 1010 kg of carbon – currently worth more than $700 million on the European carbon-trading market."

Problem is that sea otter populations are anything but healthy--as reported in Sierra last November. Populations in British Columbia are thriving, but California numbers are declining, apparently as a result of shark attacks and Toxoplasma gondii, a protazoal disease stemming from cat feces. Brad Plumer in The New Republic points out that a reasonable carbon-trading system could help remedy the situation:

If Wilmers is right and a healthy sea otter population could sequester ten million tons of carbon, that'd be worth $200 million. So polluters might decide that it's cheaper to fund sea otter preservation programs than cut power use (at least in the short term), and new offset projects could get approved. Voila: There's suddenly money to try this sea otter strategy.

Unfortunately, we do not have such a system, nor much of a prospect for getting one anytime soon. Just another reason, though, to keep your cat indoors.

(Coincidental etymological bonus: Last night my eight-year old daughter wanted to know how the "urchin" in sea urchin was connected to Dickensian beggars, so we dragged out the O.E.D. Turns out "urchin" is an old name for hedgehog, hence its application to the spiny sea creature. In the Middle Ages it came to be a name for an elf or a goblin, based on a belief that such creatures sometimes appeared as hedgehogs. From goblin, it seems, came the later sense of a mischievous child.)

--Paul Rauber

Photo by Sebastian Kennerknecht/Minden Pictures.

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