Bringing Otters Back to Otter Rock

The Elakha Alliance and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians are working to return a lost population of sea otters to the Oregon coast.

Photo by Robb Lansdowne, courtesy of Elakha Alliance

When you think of the Oregon Coast, you may think of sea lions barking and basking on the docks in Newport, migratory bird nesting at Haystack Rock, or maybe you were lucky enough to see green plump tentacles of an anemone waving at you from one of the coast’s many tidepools.

But one famous landmark might puzzle you: Otter Rock. Otter Rock is a stone outcropping located about half a mile offshore just north of Newport where sea otters formerly lived. According to Native communities this is also where a hunter killed one of the last wild Oregon sea otters for its fur more than a century ago.

Since then, generations of Oregonians have grown up without seeing the playful sea otters floating among kelp beds off of their coastal beaches.​

The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians tribal land sits roughly ten miles directly inland from Otter Rock, and its people are very familiar with coastal ecology and resources, including the now mythical Oregon sea otter. I talked with Robert Kentta, the tribe’s cultural resources director and a tribal council member, about what it would mean to the tribes and coastal ecology to restore sea otters to the Oregon coast, and how new legislation might offer hope for its reintroduction.

Sea otters were hunted to extinction by European and American fur traders in the Pacific Northwest during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because of their highly prized pelts. Before that, sea otters were abundant along the Pacific Coast. They appear both in Siletz oral traditions and in the middens (ancient mounds) of Native encampments, along with shells and bones of other hunted and gathered foods.

Sea otters were a sign of prosperity for tribal peoples, and in the past a luxurious otter pelt worn as a robe would have been the most valuable possession a Siletz person could own.

Kentta tells us, “Only wealthy people were really allowed to own sea otter robes and capes. And you had to have status of a certain level to really be able to wear them without being ridiculed for acting above your level…..  And they were things that were traded for. We know that Lewis and Clark came down the Columbia in 1805 and tried to barter for a sea otter pelt, and their possessions were so pitiful to the natives that they had to trade goods from the whole company to buy just one.”

The high esteem of the pelts and the status required to own them meant that the number of otters hunted was kept in check, allowing sea otters to maintain their role in the ecosystem.

Kentta sees the otter as important for both the ecosystem and tribal traditions. He says, “For us as tribes, that nearshore habitat is very important, both the resources and the diversity. So there's the first foods aspect, and general environmental concern for the tribes. But also the importance of them culturally, because the otters exist in our stories. They've always been part of our ancestral landscape. And it has really only been the last one hundred years that they've been absent from the Oregon coast.”

There had been a previous attempt to reestablish coastal otter populations after hunting had brought them to the brink of extinction.

On July 18, 1970, a delivery of twenty-nine scared, cold, and confused northern sea otters made its way by plane, truck, and boat from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to the southern Oregon town of Port Orford—a full century after disappearing from the Oregon Coast. A second delivery of sixty-four otters was made in 1971. Around the same time, otters were successfully reintroduced to Washington, southeast Alaska, and British Columbia fifty years ago, but in Oregon the otters did not repopulate as expected. Kentta has some ideas why. 

“I talked to people involved in those efforts that said it was pretty bad. They noted how the animals were filthy and sick from the transport and what was probably a very traumatic ride for them. Some probably succumbed to shock, shark predation, and likely disease right from the start. There were reports of crab fishermen shooting otters on sight.... so they were in real trouble from the get-go.” 

Then there’s the issue of whether northern sea otters were a good fit for southern Oregon ecosystems. There is evidence that northern and southern sea otters are genetically distinct. Along with different behaviors, they are also physically different in terms of skull and tooth size and shape, each adapted to foraging in different geographic areas on different prey.

Biogeographically, southern Oregon is very similar to northern California. Both regions have (or had) rich bull kelp canopies, rocky substrates and shorelines, and large populations of sea urchin and abalone.

 “We have pretty limited information as to what the density of sea otters was on the Oregon coast,'' says Kentta. “But we do have scientific information now that our original population here was a blending of the northern and southern population. As far as genetics it was kind of like the blending ground for the otter populations.”

Kentta’s interest in sea otters was sparked by his good friend and former Siletz tribal council member Dave Hatch. Hatch is no longer with us, but Kentta remembers him finding oceanographic maps from the early 1900s that showed healthy kelp beds along the Oregon coast. Compared to those same areas today, he noticed the kelp beds were greatly diminished. His curiosity led him to research what was changing in those ecosystems and ultimately led him to sea otters and their important role in maintaining healthy kelp beds. When otters are present, they eat the urchins that can otherwise devour kelp forests.

The Elakha Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Siletz, was born soon after Hatch’s discovery. (Elakha is a Chinook word for sea otter.) Along with Kentta and Dave’s son Peter, its board includes a handful of other Native members who are concerned with bringing back healthy balances of urchins, kelp, and sea otters and are offering important Indigenous perspectives and values to make that happen.

The Elakha Alliance has been one of the primary advocates for returning sea otters to Oregon. Part of that work is to educate and build support and relationships with the coastal communities that will be facing a bumpy road once otters are reintroduced. Some towns may benefit from an influx of visitors that want a glimpse of a true, wild, Oregon otter. Some towns may worry that their industry, like crabbing, will take a hit. No one knows for sure where, when, or if reintroduction will happen. But armed with scientific studies, the Alliance has been conducting its own feasibility study, guided in part by OSU graduate Dominique Kone’s research, to get ready for sea otter reintroduction on the Oregon Coast. Because, Kentta says, ”otters are a visual reminder of a healthy relationship the Siletz have always maintained with their environment, as well as part of our culture”.

And this year, in early January 2021, those efforts received a huge boost with new legislation introduced by Oregon US Senator Jeff Merkley, ordering US Fish and Wildlife to gather the needed scientific information and estimate costs involved for the reestablishment of the furry and iconic marine mammal. So that maybe, in our lifetime, the name Otter Rock will make sense again.

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