The lives of sea otters — the tool-using marine mammals — were once intertwined with those of the coastal tribes in Oregon. But when fur traders discovered the value of the warm, waterproof pelts, a global trade led to the near extinction of the animals. Now, local Native Americans are hoping to bring them back.
Peter Hatch, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, says he began learning about the relationship between his people and the otters when he and his father built a boat and needed a name for it.
“My dad happened across elakha, for sea otter, in a Chinook jargon dictionary,” Hatch said, standing on Sunset Beach, just south of Coos Bay. That’s where the last local sea otter was sold in 1910, one year before implementation of an international treaty to protect them.
Hatch and his father delved into the history of otters and became interested in bringing them back.
"We survived and the sea otters didn't," Hatch says. "That leaves us with a level of responsibility to undo the wrongs that all people, whatever their particular background — we've had our own small part in committing."
His father founded the Elakha Alliance about 20 years ago to advocate for returning sea otters to Oregon. The older Hatch has passed away, but today the Alliance has the blessing of three coastal tribes. Hatch is the group's secretary.
"It is about restoring that relationship," he says, "about bringing back a relative."
The Elakha Alliance has commissioned a feasibility study looking at the biology, ecology, economics and cultural impacts of reintroducing otters. An unanswered question is why the 1970 effort to move some Alaska otters to Oregon failed. But during the long years otters have been away, a shellfish industry has grown lucrative in the very waters where the otter restoration would take place.
Otter revival vs. Dungeness crab industry
Off the coast of Bodega Bay, California, 450 miles south of Coos Bay, Dick Ogg and his two-person crew throw Dungeness crab pots into the water. Ogg says he has nothing against otters.
“Personally, I love ‘em. They’re really neat little critters,” he said.
But otters eat about a quarter of their body weight every day to stay warm in frigid Pacific waters. He's concerned sea otters would start chowing down on Dungeness crab.
“If they bring the little guys up here and they wipe out the Dungeness crab fishery, it’s going to wipe out the fishermen,” Ogg said. “That’s our main opportunity to make our living.”
More than 800 people in Oregon and California hold commercial permits for Dungeness crab and they employ many others who also rely on the fishery. Ogg knows sea otters once lived here and farther north. But now they stay well to the south.
"Why haven't they reached past that point?" Ogg asks.
The answer to Ogg's question can be found at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has an indoor exhibit of swimming sea otters who dive down, pop out of the water and roll onto their backs to oohs and ahhs from visitors. But aside from the exhibit otters, who are unable to live in the wild, the aquarium rehabilitates abandoned pups and releases them.
Jessica Fuji, sea otter program manager at the aquarium, says there are natural hurdles preventing sea otters from moving back into northern California and Oregon waters.
"Both to the north and south ends of their current range is where there are a lot of white sharks," she said. The aquarium releases healthy pups in a nearby estuary, Elkhorn Slough, where resident otters provide a community. Fuji says the next step for restoration would be to see whether the otters really could live again where they once thrived.
“Looking at a good habitat for the sea otters...is there food? Risks from predators, as well as different diseases? All of that combined is going to have to be considered in finding a potential otter utopia,” Fuji said.
Maybe Oregon could be that promised land. Sea otter advocates got a boost last year when Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., pushed Congress to request a reintroduction feasibility study from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It's due next month. Peter Hatch says his Elakha Alliance wants to see a healthy marine ecosystem here in 50 years that includes sea otters.
“Success for us looks like a couple of hundred otters, not a couple of thousands,” Hatch said.
He hopes that would be enough to revive the connection between Oregon's coastal tribes and the marine mammals that once helped sustain them.
Travel for this story was made possible by a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.
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