Once upon a time, there were sea otters on the Oregon coast. Thousands of them. Places were named after them: Otter Rock, Otter Point. Their population stretched from northern Japan to Mexico.
“They were really important to the culture, the diet and the life ways of the native peoples that were here, and it had been that way for thousands of years,” said Bob Bailey, a board member of Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition and retired director of Oregon’s Coastal Management Program.
Bailey spoke about the otters’ disappearance and a current effort to bring them back during the Sharing the Coast conference in Cannon Beach March 2.
Otters were important in sustaining the coastal ecological system that, in turn, supported the people living on the Oregon coast, Bailey said. “They were important culturally as well as ecologically.”
But otters also were valuable for their fur, and, from the 1740s through the mid-1800s, Russian, British and American hunters trapped them. “There were 12,000 to 15,000 otters a year being taken off the northwest coast,” Bailey said. In all, an estimated 300,000-500,000 sea otters were killed.
By the time John Jacob Astor’s fur-hunting company showed up in Astoria in 1810, sea otters were already scarce, Bailey said.”In a very short time these animals were turned into an industrial commodity and virtually wiped out.”
An effort to bring back the sea otter occurred in 1970 and 1971 when 93 animals were moved from the Aleutian Islands and released at Redfish Rocks, Port Orford and Cape Arago in Oregon.
Although they remained a few years, eventually the population disappeared for reasons still unknown, Bailey said.
However, sea otters still swim on the southern California coast, Washington’s Olympic Coast, around Vancouver Island in British Columbia and in southeast Alaska.
In California, the population is steady at 3,100, which is at capacity for the area. They don’t swim north or south, possibly because of sharks, Bailey said. Occasionally, a few stray sea otters, probably from British Columbia, are seen on the Columbia River and the north Oregon Coast.
Sea otters are a “keystone species,” that significantly affects the structure and function of the ecological environment surrounding them, Bailey said. Because they eat the sea urchins that graze on kelp, the kelp forests — and everything that depends on kelp — thrive when sea otters are around.
“So their effect on the environment is huge,” Bailey said.
Kelp forests, which are limited in Oregon, capture and store carbon, create nutrients and increase biological productivity by protecting larvae and juveniles from waves. “Just like the forest on land,” he added.
“The question is, without sea otters what’s the health of the Oregon near shore system?” Bailey asked.
Oregon Shores has joined coastal tribes, researchers and others in organizing the Elakha Alliance to work on returning sea otters to Oregon. But such an effort is fraught with variables, Bailey admitted.
“Returning a species to the wild is not an easy task or a certain task,” said Bailey, comparing the project to the three-decade effort to bring the California condor back.
“In the end, nature bats last….Despite what we think we might do, we may not be able to do anything,” Bailey said.