Oregon Has Mixed Feelings About the Return of Sea Otters

The reintroduction of this endangered species would help restore ecosystems—but potentially to the detriment of local tribes.

close up of otter
Westend61 GmbH / Alamy

This article was originally published by High Country News.

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 (which banned open-water sealing), 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 residents now consider otters a pest. Similar attempts around the same time in Oregon didn’t take, but some populations in Washington and California are still slowly growing.

Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has turned its attention to that remaining gap. The agency announced in a press release last month that returning sea otters to Oregon and Northern California is feasible and would also bring likely—if unequal—economic benefits. Scientists and tribes say that reintroducing otters would restore balance to degraded kelp forests, boost fish species, protect shoreline ecosystems, 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 a keystone predator in the kelp forest. 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 massive die-off of sea stars, which had filled otters’ role as the top predator of sea urchins. Unchecked, urchins proliferated, resulting in the widespread collapse of kelp forests: In Northern California, kelp forests have shrunk by more than 90 percent, replaced by urchin-filled barrens. Researchers believe that 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, says that otters’ significance to ecosystems and tribes drives the organization’s work. Although 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 that this dictates a responsibility on the part of humans to try to bring otters back. Among coastal tribes, including his own, Hatch says there are 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.”

But bringing back sea otters will not be a universal boon. “The greatest risk is the amount of uncertainty we have about what the impacts would be on shellfish fisheries,” says Michele Zwartjes, a co-author of the assessment and a biologist and field supervisor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon. Otters will likely compete with people for clams, urchins, abalone, and crab, and the fishing industry could be affected. Past reintroductions have shown that large impacts are possible, but not guaranteed.

Those who fear economic losses often point to Southeast Alaska, where about 400 otters were introduced in the 1960s. The population, which now numbers more than 25,000, has significantly reduced the commercial-crab catch and cost fishermen more than $28 million from 1995 to 2011 alone, according to an industry-funded report.

This is unlikely to happen in Oregon, Zwartjes says, due to the same geographic and habitat barriers that have so far prevented such a population explosion in California: Alaska has five times the suitable foraging habitat of the Oregon and California coast, and its shape allows for spread in many directions (on the continental West Coast, otters can move only north or south). But the report acknowledges that the Marine Mammal Protection Act would prevent killing sea otters if numbers got out of hand.

That appears to be the largest concern among tribes. Several of the six tribes that responded to Fish and Wildlife’s request for feedback, including the Makah Tribal Council in Northern Washington, expressed misgivings. No new reintroductions are proposed for that region, but tribal leaders believe that otters could migrate there—some from past projects in Washington already have.

“Our concern is that any plan to reintroduce sea otters back to the ecosystem would not be complete if it did not also include returning [sea otters’] primary predator of man back to the ecosystem,” wrote Timothy Greene Sr., the chairman of the Makah Tribal Council. He pointed to evidence that tribes historically managed sea otters in ways that also enabled thriving fisheries of abalone, urchin, and mussels. Without that balance, otters could threaten the tribes’ food and economic security. Under federal law, however, coastal tribes would be unable to manage them through hunting, despite having the traditional knowledge to do so.

Still, most tribes, including the Makah Tribal Council, acknowledged the ecological benefits of reintroduction. Elakha Alliance members believe that as plans unfold over the next few years, conversation among stakeholders will reveal more shared goals than disagreements. Any reintroductions are still a few years away.

One site likely to be considered is near Port Orford in Southern Oregon, where one of the few remaining large kelp forests offers an ideal habitat. The area is a stop on the Run to the Rogue, an annual 234-mile relay that retraces the Siletz Tribes’ forced relocation. When Oregon and the federal government removed families from the area more than 150 years ago, Peter Hatch says, sea otters were still present. Today, the relay is an important act of remembrance, community, and homecoming.

“Bringing sea otters back to our ancestral lands is a different kind of homecoming,” Hatch says. “I look forward to the day when we’ll be celebrating in Port Orford and be able to see the sea otters out in the water, as the folks from there always had been able to.”