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But sea otters also threaten the shellfish industry and tribal self-governance.
In 1906, two hunters at Otter Rock on the central Oregon coast killed what may have been Oregon’s last wild sea otter, then sold the pelt for $900. The fur trade decimated sea otter populations from Baja California to Alaska; by 1911, when the U.S., Great Britain, Russia and Japan signed the North Pacific Fur Seal Treaty, banning off-shore hunting, the species was nearly extinct.
Since then, wildlife managers up and down the coast have tried, with mixed success, to bring them back. In Southeast Alaska, reintroduction in the 1960s succeeded so well that many now consider otters a pest. Similar attempts around the same time in Oregon didn’t take, but several populations in Washington and Central California are still slowly growing.
Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has turned its attention to that remaining 900-mile gap. The agency announced in an assessment published last month that returning sea otters to Oregon and Northern California is feasible and would also bring likely—if unequal—economic benefits. Scientists and tribal leaders say reintroducing otters would restore balance to degraded kelp forests, boost fish species, protect shorelines, generate tourist dollars and even capture carbon. But concerns remain in communities where otters would compete with humans for shellfish, and among some tribes that fear their self-governance is also at stake.
Sea otters, which hunt shellfish, crab and kelp-devouring sea urchins, are at the top of the kelp-forest food chain. Without otters, those ecosystems have been slowly degrading, and in 2013 they hit a catastrophic tipping point: A mysterious disease—possibly triggered by warming ocean temperatures—caused a continent-spanning die-off of sea stars, which had filled otters’ role as the top predator of sea urchins. Unchecked, urchins proliferated, causing the widespread collapse of kelp forests: In Northern California, they’ve shrunk by more than 90%, replaced by urchin-filled barrens. Researchers believe reintroducing sea otters may be one of the only ways to save what’s left.
The feasibility assessment is the latest step in a reintroduction effort championed by Oregon’s Elakha Alliance, an otter conservation nonprofit founded by tribal members and scientists. Peter Hatch, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and an Elakha Alliance board member, said their significance to ecosystems and tribes drives the organization’s work. Though generations have passed since otters were hunted to near extinction, many places still bear their name in tribal languages. Stories about them depict a relationship that epitomizes the interconnections between humans and the rest of the natural world.
Hatch believes this dictates a responsibility for humans to try to bring otters back. Among coastal tribes, including his own, Hatch said there are many stories of men and women marrying sea otters, seals and beavers. These animals bring gifts from the ocean and offer a relationship of mutuality that Hatch takes to heart. “Quite literally, in a traditional understanding, these species are relatives by marriage. So we have a familial duty to support them, to uphold their interests, to be stewards. In ways that are hard to fully articulate, it puts a different spin on our environmental responsibilities.”