By Joshua Sokol.
From 1969 to 1971, the United States was testing nuclear weapons beneath one of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, worryingly close to some of the world’s few surviving sea otters. The subterranean explosions prompted conservation managers to carry out a daring plan.
First, they netted some Alaskan sea otters. Then they set 59 free off the coast of Washington State and 93 more near Oregon. This was part rescue mission, part homecoming. Before fur traders hunted them to the brink of extinction, sea otters used to bob and roll up and down North America’s Pacific Coast, gobbling down sea urchins and helping to maintain waving towers of kelp.
In Washington, the transplants took. But within a few years the Oregon otters vanished. “The biggest question is: What happened to Oregon?” said Shawn Larson, a conservation biologist at the Seattle Aquarium, because the answer could inform transplantation efforts.
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