In June, a team from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently traveled to Astoria, Newport and other coastal towns in Oregon and Northern California to meet with community members about the possible reintroduction of sea otters to Oregon and Northern California. Starting in the 1700s, the marine mammals were nearly hunted to extinction from Alaska to California for the maritime fur trade and disappeared from Oregon’s coastal waters in the early 1900s.
Last year, the USFWS released a report which found that reintroducing sea otters would be “biologically feasible,” and could help restore kelp forests, along with other benefits to the nearshore environment. But big challenges and uncertainties remain, including the impact on the Dungeness crab and other fisheries. Joining us to talk about this issue is Michele Zwartjes, supervisor for the Oregon Coast Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
We also hear from the Elakha Alliance, a nonprofit based in Siletz that has been advocating for more than five years for the return of sea otters to the Oregon coast, including publishing its own reintroduction feasibility study in 2021. Jane Bacchieri is the executive director of the Elakha Alliance. Peter Hatch is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and a secretary and board member of the Elakha Alliance. They join us to talk about the cultural importance of sea otters to Indigenous communities, and what their return would signify.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Sea otters, those adorable deep diving, back floating, shellfish eating mammals were once found up and down the Pacific coast. And then came the maritime fur trade. By the beginning of the 1900s, 99% of sea otters had been killed. Now the US Fish and Wildlife Service is considering reintroducing sea otters in Oregon. Michele Zwartjes is a supervisor for the agency’s Oregon coast field office. She joins us now. Welcome to the show.
Michele Zwartjes: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.
Miller: So, about a month ago you held a series of open houses from the central California coast all the way up to Astoria. What were your goals for these meetings?
Zwartjes: We had a series of 16 open houses in various coastal communities all up and down the coast. And our goal was to primarily raise public awareness that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is in the very early stages of considering whether we might want to propose a reintroduction of sea otters in this area, in Northern California and in Oregon. This stems from a feasibility assessment that we completed last year in 2022 at the direction of Congress. Congress had asked the US Fish and Wildlife service to evaluate the feasibility and cost of reintroducing sea otters in recognition of their role as a keystone species, and their importance in maintaining balance in the near-shore marine ecosystem.
So we wanted to make sure people were familiar with our feasibility assessment, that they know that these conversations are going on, and that they have an opportunity to provide early and ongoing input into this conversation. We wanna make sure everyone has a seat at the table. And we were particularly interested in hearing from people in these coastal communities as to what factors they think it’s important for us to consider as we evaluate whether we might want to take the next steps in potentially proposing a reintroduction.
Miller: I want to hear more about what you learned and what you heard from those more than a dozen meetings. But what did you already learn based on that feasibility study?
Zwartjes: The conclusion of our study was that the reintroduction of sea otters would provide a significant benefit to both the recovery of the species and to the restoration and maintenance of a healthy near-shore marine environment, particularly kelp and seagrass ecosystems that provide habitat for hundreds of species. So we already know that there would be this likely very beneficial effect of reintroducing sea otters, from a biological and ecological perspective.
But we identify the greatest source of uncertainty being the potential socioeconomic impacts of a reintroduction. And that’s where we really want to reach out to coastal community members and stakeholders that could be affected by a reintroduction to gather more information on that question. What would the potential socioeconomic impacts be? And what should we be rolling into any kind of more rigorous evaluation, should reintroduction consideration continue?
One of the important caveats is that we have not identified particular areas where reintroduction might occur. So that would be one of the most significant next steps that we could take, so that we could do a more targeted assessment of the economic impacts in those areas.
Miller: You say you haven’t figured out the exact locations, but my understanding is that you do know at least broadly that you’re talking about Oregon. Is that right?
Zwartjes: Oregon and Northern California, yes. That is the largest remaining gap in the historical range of the sea otter. Oregon is the only Pacific coast state that does not have a sea otter population. There are sea otters that have begun to recover in California, those are recovering from a very small population that survived the fur trade there off the coast of Big Sur. So there are about 3,000 southern sea otters in California today. Those are a different subspecies that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
And then in the northern Washington coast, we have northern sea otters that were reintroduced in the 1960s and 1970s. But there’s almost a 900 mile gap between central California and the Washington Coast, where there are no sea otters any longer.
Miller: What lessons have you taken from earlier reintroduction efforts?
Zwartjes: The introductions of the 1960s and 1970s, we know that those often resulted in high levels of dispersal from those sites very early on. We now know that sea otters have a very strong homing tendency and an affinity for a particular home range. If you are capturing and translocating adult wild otters, you can expect there to be relatively high numbers of animals that will leave the site almost immediately.
Miller: And try to go back to what they know as home?
Zwartjes: As far as we know. The reintroductions that occurred in the 60s and 70s, those animals were actually not tagged. So we don’t know for sure. But we do know from a more recent reintroduction that occurred in San Nicolas Island, one of the Channel Islands in Southern California, where many of those animals were tagged, that they can travel hundreds of miles to try and return to their site of capture or return to the mainland. So that’s one lesson learned.
Miller: That seems like a big and challenging lesson to apply, if you’re talking about a 900 mile stretch that used to have sea otters in parts of it and doesn’t now. How do you get over that first hurdle of the re-homing instinct of these sea otters?
Zwartjes: There’s several different methods that could be considered, and we suggest several of them in our feasibility assessment. But we do suggest them as experimental pilot studies because we do not know what may work best.
You can consider, even though you do lose large numbers of individuals initially, those re-introductions were almost all ultimately successful. The reintroduction of the 60s and 70s that took place in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia and Washington, even though they got down to very low numbers, have ultimately resulted in about a third of all the sea otters in the world today. So ultimately, they were successful. So that traditional kind of method of translocation is one possibility.
Another possibility is looking at the potential for using surrogate reared pups from aquaria, where stranded pups are brought in and raised by females that are in captivity at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They teach those pups to groom and to forage, and they are released into an estuary environment in Elkhorn Slough near Monterey. And those releases have resulted in very high levels of retention, about 90% of those animals stay in place. So that’s a possibility, you could potentially look to these pups as a source for reintroductions.
And then the third option is that you might consider a hybrid option where you combine the translocation of wild otters with supplemented pups from a captive reared environment.
Miller: I want to go back to the meetings that you held from the Northern California coast all the way up through the northern Oregon coast. As you said, you do know that there are clear biological and ecological benefits to the reintroduction of sea otters. But the question before you was more about the socioeconomic effects of this, what this would mean for people or for fisheries. What kinds of concerns did you hear from commercial fishermen or crabbers or other people on these coasts?
Zwartjes: We heard a wide variety of perspectives. It was really interesting, and I have to say so wonderful to be able to go out and actually be able to speak with people one on one, and have really in depth, meaningful conversations, and really understand what their perspectives and their values are, and how they’re thinking about this. So it was an incredibly valuable experience.
It’s a difficult thing, because there’s no standard metric for measuring what the effects might be. Some of the effects might be financial, so you can measure them in terms of dollars. But a lot of what we heard from people is that they have other values that could be affected. They place great weight on righting a historical wrong, or just on their ability to see sea otters and the personal satisfaction that they take from that. So trying to figure out a standard way of weighing and evaluating all those things is very challenging.
Some people were incredibly excited about the possibility of sea otters being restored to the Oregon coast, and the value that they might bring in terms of helping to restore the kelp systems and finfish fisheries and the wildlife viewing opportunities. We’ve heard from many of the tribes that they place great cultural value on having sea otters back in the system.
And then from various shellfish fishers, within that particular sector, a very wide variety of opinions. On the one hand, we had some abalone divers in the San Francisco Bay area that we were talking to, who are absolutely adamant that we have to bring sea otters back because they’ve seen the devastation of the kelp forest down there, and feel like it’s an important thing to do to restore balance in that system. On the other hand, we talked to some abalone divers who were like “absolutely not, we are sure that this is gonna mean that we will never be able to reopen the abalone fishery, so we don’t even want to entertain the possibility of bringing sea otters back.”
The other concern that we’ve heard from folks in fisheries is that they are feeling very much impacted by multiple factors including, for example, whale entanglement issues, and trying to avoid those with their crowd plots. The closure of the salmon fishery this year. Many of these folks are involved in multiple fisheries. For them, this is just one more obstacle for them to deal with. So that’s understandable.
Miller: We’re gonna get two more perspectives on this right now. The Elakha Alliance is a nonprofit based in Siletz. It’s been advocating for the return of sea otters to the Oregon coast for more than five years now. Jane Bacchieri is the executive director of the group. Peter Hatch is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the secretary of the board of the nonprofit. Welcome to you both.
Jane Bacchieri: Thanks for having us.
Peter Hatch: Thank you.
Miller: Peter Hatch, first. I understand that your father was really one of the initial forces behind this effort. What drove him?
Hatch: That’s a really wonderful question. My father was a military brat, grew up everywhere between Virginia and Thailand. But always felt rooted from his father’s side of the family, from the tribal side, here in Oregon, and especially on the coast where our family is from. And so as soon as he lived here, always was deeply concerned with the health of our lands and waters, and trying to understand the difference between the historical abundance of Oregon, of all these places that we love and all the relationships that our folks are relied upon to live, and the problems, the decline, the lack of balance that we see now.
A manifestation of that was when I was nine years old, we built a sailing dinghy together. And coming up with a name for that, he was looking in a dictionary of a Chinook Jargon, or Chinook Wawa, the trade language here for our region, and came up with “ilaka” for sea otter. And that really led him down a path of inquiry and connecting people to understand why we didn’t have sea otters, and why that matters, what that could mean ecologically if we were able to bring them back. And so that involved marine mammal specialists like Deb Duffield of Portland State University, or archaeologists like Roberta Hall and Virginia Butler, bringing together the historical remains of sea otters, the bones from the middens of our folks’ ancient sites up and down the coast, to try to understand what we could about the historical Oregon sea otter population, see if that had any implications for reintroduction, and begin that process of learning all we could, in a way that would hopefully lead toward a reintroduction and a reestablishment of that balance and all the ecological benefits that that would come. And not just to the near-shore ecosystem, but in all the other ecosystems that are interconnected with that one, with the kelp forest.
So after his passing in 2016, a bunch of us got together and decided that the time was right to really build on that legacy and make a go of it.
Miller: Jane Bacchieri, I want to hear more about the cultural pieces here. But we just heard from Peter Hatch a little bit about the kelp forest. What role do sea otters play in a marine landscape?
Bacchieri: Sea otters are considered a keystone species, which means they have a significant impact on the structure and function of the ecosystems within which they exist. Another example of a keystone species would be wolves, for example, in Yellowstone. So when you remove a keystone species, in this case a top level predator, you’re removing redundancy in the system. A good example that has happened all along the west coast, including Oregon, is the sea star wasting disease over the past number of years has basically caused the decimation of numerous species of sea stars, including the sunflower sea star. Sunflower sea stars prey on sea urchins, as do sea otters. When you remove both of those predators from the system, we have had an overabundance, overpopulation of purple sea [urchins] in particular, which prey on kelp. So we’ve lost a lot of our kelp habitat.
Miller: And the hope, and the projection, is that if you bring sea otters back, then a longstanding ecological balance could be restored, and kelp forests, which themselves are hugely important for this whole network, have a better chance of thriving?
Bacchieri: Exactly. And we’re putting back some resiliency into our system. Right now with climate change, there’s a lot of uncertainty with what might come next. But if we have the ability to bring back some of that diversity and complexity into our marine near-shore systems, that we think will be very beneficial for the future.
Miller: Peter Hatch, can you give us a sense for the relationships between sea otters and Indigenous peoples on the northwest coast going back to age immemorial?
Hatch: Sure. I do wanna speak from my own perspective. It’s not my place to tell other folks from other tribes how to think or feel. But the plain truth of it is that whatever your perspective, as long as there have been human footprints on the shore of this region that we love, up until just a couple of short generations ago, we have always shared this region with sea otters. So it’s important to think about the lack of them that we’ve been experiencing as just a little blip in that grand scope of time that hopefully we can overcome.
And I think that, as with any of the really charismatic beings that we share our lands and waters with, sea otters are all over the traditional oral literature of the Pacific Northwest. From my own background as a Hanis Coos person and descendant, I think a lot about one particular story told by a Coos elder by the name of Annie Miner Peterson, who talked about a young Coos woman who married out among the sea otter people and had children, and then went to visit her human family back on land to formalize the marriage and bring gifts and establish that interconnection. And she says as she returns back out to sea to return to her husband and her sons that “they’re not just sea otters, they are persons, just their clothes are sea otter hides. As long as you live, that long a time, sea otter will always give you whale. As long as I have my own skin, that long a time, will you see me, even if only one person be alive.”
To understand sea otters not as resources to exploit, but as relatives that we have a responsibility to, and that we have failed in that responsibility. When we look back at the history, when those last few Oregon sea otters were so few that they were commanding a really high price just for one otter skin, a lot of those, last sea otter hunters making a living off the tremendous windfall of thousands of dollars, adjusted for inflation, from just getting one sea otter, a lot of the people doing that hunting were tribal folks. And so I think that all of us as humans, in my view, owe a debt, and have a wrong that we’ve all had some hand in to try to correct, to restore that balance and interrelationship that that story gets to.
Miller: Jane Bacchieri, we heard from Michele Zwartjes earlier, from US Fish and Wildlife, that they’re in the early stages of considering if they might want to propose reintroducing sea otters. That’s federal bureaucracy for you. What’s the potential timeline here?
Bacchieri: I can’t speak for the service, but we recently updated our strategic plan, and we have projected five to seven years as a potentially realistic timeline for having otters in the water. That doesn’t mean that you have a viable population of sea otters. I think as Michelle referenced, often the population can decline pretty significantly after reintroduction happens. And so it would take a number of years, 10, 20 or more to realize what we would consider a sustainable population of sea otters.
Miller: And at that point, is there a chance that Oregonians would see the sea otters? Or is that too much to hope for?
Bacchieri: No, I don’t think it’s too much to hope for at all. In fact a year and a half ago, there was a lone sea otter off Yaquina Head that they think came down from Washington. People saw that animal, and lots of people went to Yaquina Head to see that animal. So the populations might be small, but they would likely be visible in certain areas depending on where the relocation sites were.
Miller: I’ve heard that about 90% of the sea otters in the world are in Alaska now. Would Oregon be anything like Alaska in terms of sea otter population or habitat?
Bacchieri: The simple answer is no. The coastline of Alaska is very different than the coastline of Washington, Oregon and California. It’s relatively shallow in southeast Alaska, there’s lots of coves and nooks and crannies. It’s kinda sea otter habitat heaven, and there’s areas where they can spread to.
Because we have a linear coastline on the rest of the west coast here, even if you look at the extent that the populations have spread and grown in Washington and California, it has not been great. And so we have geographic limitations to how vast the population, how big they would grow. Historically, researchers think that we probably had no more than 4,000-5,000 sea otters along the entire Oregon coast before hunting. It’s unlikely we’d ever get back to that number.
Miller: Jane Bacchieri and Peter Hatch, thanks very much.
Bacchieri: Thank you.
Miller: Jane Bacchieri is the executive director of the Elakha Alliance. Peter Hatch is the secretary of the board of the nonprofit. They joined us to talk about the possibility of the reintroduction of sea otters on Oregon’s coast.
Contact “Think Out Loud®”
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook, send an email to email@example.com, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.