Sea Otter Reintroduction Could Mend Ecological and Colonial Scars

Sea Otter Reintroduction Could Mend Ecological and Colonial Scars | Atmos

Photograph by Kiliii Yüyan

Indigenous organizations are considering restoring sea otters to Oregon’s coast. Not everyone is pleased.

Along the coast of Oregon in 1999, David Hatch shuffled through an old Chinook dictionary. He and his son, Peter, were building a dinghy together and in search of a Native name for their new exploration vessel. Filtering through the pages, the elder Hatch came across an intriguing word: Elakha, the sea otter. Perfect for their new rig, he thought. But how peculiar, he pondered, to feel drawn to a word so intrinsically tied to his peoples’ history, and yet—there were no wild sea otters in sight… and there hadn’t been for quite some time.

According to historical records, the last of the original Oregonian sea otters were likely killed in 1906. Russian sailors, while exploring the Aleutian Islands starting in the 1700s, discovered what Indigenous Pacific coastal communities had long understood: Sea otters possess the densest and most luxurious fur on Earth. While the coastal communities valued these pelts, they hunted the otters sustainably, maintaining a balance between the will of humans and the population of sea otters. The new hunters, however, took a more exploitative approach.

“It’s important to emphasize that before the fur trade that ultimately caused their extinction, there was sustainable hunting of sea otters along our coast for thousands of years,” he said. “Stories from our ancestors talk about a time when the boundaries between what we now think of as the human world and the animal world were a lot more fluid than they are today. It was a relationship that benefited all of us.”

In 1911, a treaty limiting the international trade in seal and sea otter furs was implemented. But by then, fewer than 1% of the original sea otter population remained.

Peter Hatch, the late David Hatch’s now grown son and a member of the Siletz tribe and of Hanis Coos and Siuslaw descent, recently uncovered an ethnography from 1883 that highlights what that meant for Indigenous communities: “The highest standard of value that exists among these people is the skin of the sea otter, at present there are none among them.”

Sprinkled throughout Oregon’s rugged coastline, there are numerous locations that bear the namesake of sea otters. From Otter Rock to Otter Point, these names resonate with a legacy spanning more than ten thousand years, along with Oregon’s Indigenous tribes. But these names and stories are all that remain of these marine mammals. Their decimation, a stark contrast to their enduring history, unfolded swiftly, mirroring the tragedies that befell the indigenous communities of this region during the 19th century.

“We’ve lost not only this Native sense of pride, ownership, and tradition, but there is also this loss of knowing where we get our food and clothing.”

Christy Ruby

Alaskan Coastal Native and Tlingit fur artist

In the decades since their near-extinction, conservation organizations and wildlife managers along North America’s western coastline have made concerted efforts to reintroduce sea otters, with varying degrees of success. In 1965the first successful translocation took place, when a group of sea otters were moved from the Aleutian Islands to southeastern Alaska. The state has seen the otter population rebound from 2,000 or so individuals in 1911 to roughly 70,000 now. Similar efforts in Oregon, however, weren’t successful. Oregon is the only remaining state in which sea otters once lived that no longer has a population.

“As my dad started to dig deeper into Elakha, he realized how much all Oregonians stood to gain by restoring sea otters to our ocean,” continued Hatch. “That led down a path of research, activism, and connecting people that formed the Forming an Alliance.

Since his father’s passing, Peter Hatch has continued his legacy, working with scientists, advocacy groups, community members, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to assess the scientific and economic feasibility of sea otter restoration. In the coming years, the Elakha Alliance aims to facilitate regional consensus on restoration efforts, and, if deemed necessary, to initiate restoration activities in carefully selected locations along the coast.

The return of sea otters doesn’t merely honor Indigenous heritage and rebalance ecosystems—it embodies a climate cure within the kelp forests. Otters are keystone species to the planet’s dwindling forests beneath the surface, which buffer coastal erosion and sequester carbon at a faster rate than land forests. Sea otters play a crucial role in maintaining the health of kelp forests, as they feed on sea urchins that otherwise overgraze kelp. This grazing control by otters allows kelp forests to thrive, providing habitat for diverse marine life and allowing the ecosystem to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.

“Interconnection between the presence of sea otters and the health of nearshore ecosystems is important to our continued ways of life,” said Hatch.

By propping up kelp forests, sea otters also stabilize Oregon’s fishing economy, said Chanel Hason, the director of outreach and community relations for Elakha Alliance. “Habitat for Dungeness crab and fish is such a big part of the Oregon coastal economy, and it would shrivel up if we didn’t have kelp forests to maintain it. And, kelp forests need sea otters,” she said.

As sea otter populations bounce back, Indigenous Pacific communities hope to revive their ancestral hunting practices. Indeed, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) allows Alaska’s Native people to hunt sea otters for “subsistence” or for crafting “authentic Native articles of handicraft and clothing.” But in practice, traditional hunting is much more challenging.

“We’re not just restoring a species. We’re bringing back a relative.”

Peter Hatch

member, Siletz tribe

For starters, few people today have the expert knowledge and know-how. Alaskan hunters once hunted from sleek kayaks using finely wrought tools, blending craftsmanship with reverence as they tracked otter silhouettes weaving through kelp forests. The hunts along their coastline were not a conquest, but a spiritual exchange, where the otter’s sacrifice was met with gratitude and a deep sense of reciprocity. These traditional techniques have faded as fewer hands held the knowledge passed down through ancestral whispers—the scars and legacy of colonial exploitation.

Even for those with the knowledge, the infrastructure to support otter hunting has decayed over the years, said Christy Ruby, an Alaskan Coastal Native and Tlingit fur artist. Her primary concern is that there aren’t enough tanneries—facilities where animal hides are chemically cleaned and converted to leather. Throughout her career, Ruby has witnessed one closure after another.

“We’ve lost not only this Native sense of pride, ownership, and tradition, but there is also this loss of knowing where we get our food and clothing,” added Ruby. “We’re completely disconnected from it, and people shouldn’t be blind to where their sustenance comes from.”

In Oregon, reintroduction is years away and the opportunity for traditional hunting practices are likely generations away. The MMPA doesn’t yet permit hunting in the state, but Ruby envisions an opportunity for Oregon’s Indigenous groups to utilize their traditional practices along Alaska’s shores. She, along with many Alaskan fishers and crabbers, now considers the species somewhat of a pest. Their voracious appetites, unchecked by natural predators, pose a tangible threat to fish stocks vital for sustenance and trade. Opening up their shores to non-Alaskan Natives could allow others to reclaim their heritage while appeasing the fishing community, she said.

Hason of Elakha Alliance sees grounds for concern. Many fear that reintroduction in Oregon could harm the state’s iconic Dungeness crab stocks. But she notes that reintroducing otters would stabilize the kelp forests these crabs often frequent.

Hatch recognizes the practical challenges of reintroduction, noting that a considerable time must pass before hunting can resume. The otter population must be given time to rebound, perhaps for several human generations, before they can be hunted sustainably.

He added that a cultural revival is just as integral as the ecological one. A sea otter rebound is surely good for the planet, but it must be just as good for the people.

“It’s not about grasping for what we have left, it’s about trying to restore something that we’ve lost,” he said. “We’re not just restoring a species. We’re bringing back a relative.”

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