By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management
An ecologist’s research may involve some combination of fieldwork and lab work. Yet, with modern advances in quantitative tools, such as models, computer-based research is becoming more popular. Furthermore, as the predictive capacity of models improve, they are becoming valuable to decision-makers to forecast how marine environments may respond to management decisions or phenomenon like climate change. While this type of research is important to society, I’ve often wondered if and how researchers may benefit by stepping away from their computer, every now and then, to observe the very subjects they’re studying.
For my thesis, I’m conducting an ecological assessment of a potential sea otter reintroduction to the Oregon coast. Through this work, I spend most of my time working at a desktop, analyzing spatial layers, and researching and synthesizing the literature. While I’ve learned a great deal about sea otters and the Oregon Coast, I felt that I needed to gain a better contextual understanding of this area, especially as someone from outside the region. Luckily, this summer, I had the perfect opportunity to explore this great state. Here, I share just some of the places I visited this past summer, what I’ve learned from my travels, and how these explorations have given me a deeper appreciation for the Oregon Coast and the implications of my research.
For those of you unfamiliar with Oregon geography, the Oregon Coast is an expansive area stretching from Warrenton, which borders the Columbia River, in the north to the Oregon-California border just south of Brookings (approximately 362 miles). However, if we divide this area into three geographic regions – northern, central, and southern – some noticeable regional differences become apparent, both in terms of local topography and human use and visitation.
Relative to the northern and central coastlines, the geology of southern coastline (approximately Coos Bay to Brookings) is much more complex – comprising of rocky shorelines, sheltered coves and inlets, islands, and calm estuaries (overall, less sandy beaches). The region also appears to support a relatively higher biomass of macroalgae, including kelp. Taken altogether, the presence of these physical features appears to make the southern coast potentially suitable sea otter habitat, an important prerequisite of reintroduction efforts.
In contrast, the northern and central coastlines are predominantly comprised of sandy shorelines. However, these stretches of beaches are sometimes disrupted by complex and rocky habitat and have some of the largest estuaries and bays found along the entire Oregon Coast – such as Yaquina Bay, Tillamook Bay, and the Columbia River – all of which could also be potentially suitable habitat for sea otters. Furthermore, while you can find some kelp in these regions (i.e. Yaquina Head Lighthouse), these beds appear to be more dispersed and less dense than along the southern coast. By observing these features in person this summer, I came away with a much greater sense of just how biogeographically unique each of these regions is, as well as what it truly means for habitat to be “suitable”.
Aside from these physical characteristics, I also came away with a greater sense of the type of people who live and visit these regions. Along the Oregon Coast, dozens of towns, cities, unincorporated communities, and census-designated places are called home by some 653,112 people (State of Oregon. 2012). Yet, the southern coast is much less populated than the rest of the Oregon Coast. In fact, only 13% (people in Coos and Curry County) of the Oregon Coast population lives along the southern coast (State of Oregon. 2012). During my visit to the southern region, I noticed the typical beach-goers and overnight campers at various state parks, but there were not nearly as many in the northern and central regions. This demographic disparity is not surprising, given each region’s location in the state. The northern and central coasts are much closer to highly-populated cities such as Portland, Salem, Corvallis, and Eugene, potentially making them more accessible to weekend or seasonal visitors. In southern Oregon, the nearest in-land cities include Roseburg, Grants Pass, and Medford, but these populations pale in comparison to those in the central and northern regions.
After spending some time on the Oregon Coast, I wonder how these communities may be impacted by sea otters if they were to be reintroduced. Tourism and recreation are a huge part of the Oregon Coast lifestyle and economy. If managers were to bring sea otters back to Oregon, we could potential see an increase in visitation – as sea otters are an iconic and charismatic species – particularly to communities on the southern coast where sea otters may be more likely to establish. This increased tourism may come in the form of tourist redistribution from the northern and central coast to the southern region, an increase in overall tourists from all over the state, or even an influx from outside the state. Although these predictions are premature and based only on my recent observations, it is important to consider the societal impacts of sea otter reintroduction to our local communities.
To brings things back full circle, my coastal adventures provided me with a much deeper understanding of the uniqueness of the Oregon coast, as well as the people who call it home. Having this sound understanding is not only important for me as I conduct my research, but it is also vitally important for managers who are considering a sea otter reintroduction as this action could have coast-wide or localized impacts on these communities. If managers decide to move forward with a reintroduction effort, they could look at other regions along the U.S. west coast that currently have sea otters to assess how wildlife tourism is managed in these communities. For me, I’m glad I decided to step way from the computer to experience this beautiful area because it has provided me with a perspective I could not get from my data and models.
State of Oregon. 2012. Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan: Region 1: Oregon Coast. Accessed here < https://www.oregon.gov/LCD/HAZ/docs/2.A.ORNHMP12-Reg1Profile.pdf >