River otters (Lontra canadensis) were extirpated from much of their historic distribution because of exposure to pollution and urbanization, resulting in expansive reintroduction programmes that continue today for this and other species of otters worldwide. Bioaccumulation of toxins negatively affects fecundity among mustelids, but high vagility and different dispersal distances between genders may permit otter populations to recover from extirpation caused by localized environmental pollution. Without understanding the influence of factors such as social structure and sex-biased dispersal on genetic variation and gene flow among populations, effects of local extirpation and the potential for natural recolonization (i.e. the need for translocations) cannot be assessed. We studied gene flow among seven study areas for river otters (n = 110 otters) inhabiting marine environments in Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA. Using nine DNA microsatellite markers and assignment tests, we calculated immigration rates and dispersal distances and tested for isolation by distance. In addition, we radiotracked 55 individuals in three areas to determine characteristics of dispersal. Gender differences in sociality and spatial relationships resulted in different dispersal distances. Male river otters had greater gene flow among close populations (within 16–30 km) mostly via breeding dispersal, but both genders exhibited an equal, low probability of natal dispersal; and some females dispersed 60–90 km. These data, obtained in a coastal environment without anthropogenic barriers to dispersal (e.g. habitat fragmentation or urbanization), may serve as baseline data for predicting dispersal under optimal conditions. Our data may indicate that natural recolonization of coastal river otters following local extirpation could be a slow process because of low dispersal among females, and recolonization may be substantially delayed unless viable populations occurred nearby. Because of significant isolation by distance for male otters and low gene flow for females, translocations should be undertaken with caution to help preserve genetic diversity in this species.