Ron Jameson returns to Cobble Beach at Yaquina Head, holds up his binoculars, and scans the horizon.
Above the constant roar of surf and clatter of the beach’s pebbles, the air is filled with a cacophony of Caspian terns, the croaks of cormorants, and the incessant barking of California sea lions, punctuated by the shrill cry of seagulls. In the distance, Jameson spots the heads of harbor seals bobbing in the waves. Jameson’s eyes are scanning for an animal that’s not there: sea otters.
A retired federal biologist, Jameson did research on sea otters for over 30 years.
When he scans the ocean, an image from nearly 50 years ago comes back in his memory: the sight of sea otters here on Oregon’s coast. Jameson was witness to an exciting moment in Oregon history — a massive attempt, unlike any other, to reestablish a population of sea otters.
That chapter ended nearly 40 years ago, when the marine mammals mysteriously vanished.
Today, there is a renewed interest in bringing sea otters back, layered with the lingering failure of the past. Researchers now wonder if we’ve learned enough to make a second attempt.
Sea otters once called Oregon home, part of a larger connected population of sea otters spanning the entire length of the Pacific coast, as far north as Aleutian Islands in Alaska, and as far south as Baja, Mexico.
With a million hairs per inch, sea otters have the densest fur of any mammal. The plush pelts were esteemed by native communities as symbols of luxury and status.
During the fur trade era of the 18th and 19th centuries, sea otter pelts became an international commodity, fetching top dollar.
The last wild sea otter in Oregon was reported killed in 1906. Its pelt was sold in San Francisco for $900. Just four years later, in 1910, the last wild sea otter in Washington state was killed. Its pelt sold for $1,000, approximately $27,000 today.
The first protection of sea otters was passed in 1911, under the international Fur Seal Treaty. But by then, possibly less than 1,000 sea otters survived in the world. Only a very few pockets in the most remote places remained.
“By that time, sea otters no longer occurred anywhere outside the Aleutians or Prince William Sound, Alaska, and a tiny remnant population in California,” said Jameson. “None in Washington, none in Oregon, none in British Columbia. They were gone.”
The largest group of wild sea otters had survived in the remote Aleutians Islands. Shortly after the passage of the Fur Seal Treaty, the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1913. It might have seemed that sea otters would once again be left alone, safeguarded from human disturbance.
Their respite would not last long.
The Aleutian Islands are about as remote as it gets — a string of small, rock-and-tundra islands like tiny dots in the Bering Sea. They stretch from Alaska nearly to Russia. They are wind-swept and frigid.
Amchitka, the southernmost link of the Aleutian Island chain, had lost its native Aleut population in the 19th century. During World War II, the United States built an airfield to counter an invasion by Japanese forces. Since then, the remote island had been left to the wildlife, including the surviving sea otters.
At the height of the Cold War, the Atomic Energy Commission wanted to test America’s newest, most powerful nuclear bombs. Atomic bombs had already been tested on the U.S. mainland, as well as the Marshall Islands. But these sites had people living near them. Amchitka seemed to offer an option.
“So, some Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. This is part of a national wildlife refuge and if you’re going to set off these atomic bombs, we want to mitigate that,’” explains Jameson.
The nuclear test would be the largest the United States had ever attempted; so perhaps it encouraged government biologists to launch the most ambitious wildlife project they could conceive: round up wild otters off the shore of Amchitka and “translocate” them to sites along their former range, as distant as the southern coast of Oregon.
This became an unexpected opportunity for Oregon. Biologists from the Oregon Game Commission (now Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) came to Alaska to participate in this historic effort.
On a bright July day in 1970, a transport plane landed at the Cape Blanco U.S. Coast Guard airstrip north of Port Orford. A crowd of onlookers had gathered with curiosity and excitement. They watched as men carried wooden crates off the plane, delivering 29 wild sea otters.
The otters were put into a floating holding pen. The next day, the pen was towed by a fishing boat toward a rocky headland, Red Fish Rocks.
Film footage shows men with gaff poles and landing nets, trying to urge the otters out of the pen into the open ocean.
“Well, the otters were out of their minds by the time they were towed that far,” explains Jameson, “They had to practically force them to get out of the pens.”
Although sea otters are small, even tiny by marine mammal standards, they are the largest member of the mustelidae family — a group synonymous with “animals not to mess with” — which includes skunks, polecats, wolverines and honey badgers.
When confronted, sea otters are feisty. They will hiss and bare their teeth — powerful enough to crack clamshells. Or swipe with their retractable claws.
“It wasn’t at all what we would call a ‘passive release,’” Jameson said. “But, they didn’t know. This was all groundbreaking stuff.”
Many of the otters had already swam back to Port Orford by the time the boat returned.
The next year, 64 more otters were released off the Oregon Coast.
Jameson was just starting his graduate studies at Oregon State University. He was looking for a research project. At the right place and right time, he signed up to monitor Oregon’s new population of sea otters.
He spent countless hours on beaches and bluffs with his binoculars, tallying their numbers and jotting observations in his field book.
For the first couple years the few dozen otters hung on, in fact, they began to have babies, and the mood was optimistic.
“When I found those first pups I was really excited,” recalls Jameson. “I thought: ‘Man, this is going to happen!’”
But the next few years started to tip into decline.
Just two years after the releases, Jameson estimated that only one-third of the otters remained on the Oregon Coast. Two-thirds had mysteriously vanished.
By 1982, the population had disappeared completely.
For a second time, Oregon had lost its sea otters.
No one knows exactly why the sea otters vanished from Oregon. There didn’t seem to be a lack of suitable habitat or food. And adding to the mystery—the small handful of sea otters released off the shores of Washington state managed to hang on.
On the horizon
Jameson scans the shore at Yaquina Head. It must have been 20 years ago, he figures, that he came here to confirm an otter sighting. A lone male, offering the flicker of possibility that otters from the north might drift south to Oregon.
In the years since, a few public sightings have been called in. They are always a lone male. These are exploratory missions of juvenile males to seek out new territory. But unless a female follows, the male will move on, and keep looking.
Biologists estimate that it may take at least 50 years, possibly a century, for otters to naturally move south on their own from Washington to Oregon. Or it may not happen at all. In places like Simpson Bay, Alaska, part of Prince William Sound, the wild sea otter population seems to have stabilized. In balance with the available food, the otters there have no incentive to look elsewhere.
As researchers learn that the chances are distant at best that otters will naturally repopulate Oregon, interest is growing in what it might take to attempt another reintroduction.
The Elakha Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Siletz, has been one of the primary advocates for returning sea otters to the state. Elakha is the word for sea otter in the Clatsop-Chinookan language.
This year, the alliance was awarded $40,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a feasibility study of sea otter reintroduction in Oregon.
Following the feasibility studies would come environmental impact studies, public hearings, a reintroduction plan and sign off from multiple government agencies, said Bob Bailey, board president of the alliance.
“Right now, we’re still very much in the information-gathering phase,” Dominique Kone, a marine ecologist, said. “I think that we are still trying to figure out what the actual reintroduction process would be. I think one of the great things about what we’re doing now, is that we are ahead of the decisions before they’re actually made.”
For now, the reality is still years away.
“Oh, I’d like to see them here,” Jameson said, gazing out at the ocean from Cobble Beach. “A little raft of them like I saw that one time …” He squints, as if picturing the sight of the small furry faces bobbing in the surf.
“But you know, I’m afraid it’s not going to happen in my lifetime …” He pauses, then chuckles. “Unless we bring them back!”