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Bringing sea otters back to Oregon faces ideological challenges

Restoring sea otters to the Oregon coast could aid in the fight against climate change, but opponents say maintaining status quo of local fisheries is more important.

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — If asked to choose between the environment and commercial interests, most environmentalists would naturally side with the former. But the reality is more complicated, particularly when Indigenous tribes — long left out of the conversation on how the federal government navigates issues concerning natural resources and commercial interests — are brought to the table.

In the case of mitigating climate change by reintroducing sea otters to habitats where they once thrived, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife is faced with such a dilemma. Particularly so because bringing sea otters to the Northern California and Oregon coasts sounds promising to everyone except those who are already living near the endangered species.

Known by some local tribes as the Elekha, sea otters are a small marine mammal of the family Mustelidae, characterized by their furry, weasel appearance and their hallmark tendency to float on their back while using a rock to open hard-shelled invertebrates. The animal is objectively cute, with its furry white face that pops over the top of the ocean to stare out like a teddy bear with tiny eyes and an extra wide nose.

The southern and northern sea otters, Enhydra lutris, are distinct by geography and marginally by their DNA, as fur traders nearly hunted the animal to extinction during the 18th and 19th centuries. Southern sea otters live in small pockets along the Southern California coastline while northern sea otters live from northern Washington state to southeastern Alaska — the latter a direct result of preservation and reintroduction.

But prior to joining a growing list of near-extinct species by 1911, the same year of the International Fur Trade Treaty, sea otters thrived along the entire Pacific Rim from Hokkaido, Japan, all the way to Mexico. In fact, fossil evidence suggests ancestors of the Enhydra lutris first localized the North Pacific region 2 million years ago before evolving into the species we know today.

The term Enhydra lutris, meaning ‘in the water’ and ‘otter’ in Ancient Greek, is specific to the carnivorous mammal who must eat around 25% of its body weight a day in marine fare including crab, sea urchin, tube worms, clams, mussels and oysters. However, the sea otter’s vast diet is not simply a means of appeasing a high metabolism; the animal’s affinity for sea urchin, specifically, has proven necessary for the survival of kelp forests along the Pacific coastline.

The vast, towering kelp forests that sway along the shallow depths of the Pacific are pivotal to the abundance and diversity of aquatic species like rockfish, cod, herring and salmon, all while sheltering habitats from powerful waves, maintaining ocean acidity and sequestering carbon. But without the sea otters and their insatiable hunger, sea urchins multiply and create what is known as urchin barrens — an ocean desert of sorts where nothing else can survive.  

Coincidentally, the disappearance of ancient kelp forests along the Oregon coast is what led to the reintroduction of sea otters in the Pacific Northwest. Noted extensively throughout Fish and Wildlife's feasibility assessment are citations of a report by the Elakha Alliance, a nonprofit founded by the late Dave Hatch of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

According to a letter of support from Siletz tribal chair Delores Pigsley, Hatch’s initial curiosity with sea otters was inspired by his discovery of maps from the early 1900s of Oregon kelp forests that no longer exist. Hatch’s unexpected death stalled the efforts of the Elakha Alliance until Bob Bailey, once active in several Oregon coastal issues, approached the Siletz tribe to reorganize and push efforts forward. Since then, the tribe has provided funds to support symposiums by the Elakha Alliance and has four tribal members sitting on the nonprofit’s board — including Hatch’s son.

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“We vigorously support the restoration of sea otters to our coast, and the bolstered resilience of our nearshore ecosystem biodiversity that would result from it," Pigsley wrote in the letter. "We have been without that relative here to help take care of us for too long.”

And because people love to see sea otters, there’s potential for attracting ecotourism to Oregon’s sleepy beach towns. “They’re cute, they're furry and they're just something that people do really gravitate towards,” said Oregon Zoo Supervisor Amy Hash, who has worked with sea otters for the last 16 years. “So, they're really easy species to have people fall in love with and want to protect.”

Sea otters are also very smart, Hash explained, noting they can be trained to stand on scales for weigh-ins or receive vaccinations — they have received their Covid-19 vaccines. But because of their intelligence, sea otters are also difficult to reintroduce to new locations; they always know where to find home and often do, risking fatal shark bites that typically keep populations isolated to certain areas of the coast.

The sea otter’s adept hunting skills are what makes reintroduction most challenging, however, as opponents say the animals pose a risk to already dwindling populations of Dungeness crab and commercial species of shellfish.

“200 razor clams in a single hour”

Toward the end of Fish and Wildlife's published report are five letters submitted by Pacific Northwest tribes expressing their thoughts for and against sea otter reintroduction. While almost every letter acknowledges the benefits of restoring sea otters to some extent, two accounts shed light on how previous sea otter reintroduction has already negatively affected communities in Washington state and Alaska.

“The desire to reintroduce sea otters is a noble idea,” wrote Makah Tribal Council chair Timothy Greene Sr. However, Greene also notes how reintroduction is incomplete without population control through hunting. “Often when individuals think of coastal ecosystem, they forget that man is an integral component and has been since time immemorial.”

According to Greene, Neah Bay once hosted a sea urchin fishery that supported several families in his community. “In the late 1990s, a large raft of male sea otters entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca where our fishery occurred and within a year our fishery was no longer economically viable.”

Sea otters are also causing trouble south of Destruction Island, according to Greene and the letter from the Quinault Indian Nation, specifically noting how the tribe has only recently won the right to harvest marine animals in the area through a memorandum of understanding signed by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in August 2021.

According to Quinault Indian Nation president Guy Capoeman, the introduction of sea otters in Washington state without the involvement or consent of tribal co-managers led to a population explosion, from 26 otters in 1997 to over 2,300 in 2019. “This population explosion is leading to heavy predation losses that threaten the viability of Dungeness crab and razor clams, important species for commercial, cultural and subsistence use by our communities.”

“South of Destruction Island, sea otters are reported to be primarily consuming razor claims with the clams accounting for 65% of the otters' diet,” Greene wrote, citing a study published in Marine Mammal Science. “The lead author, Jessica Hale, has reported to our marine mammal biologist [Jonathan Scordino] that she has observed a single otter eat over 200 razor clams in a single hour.”

“The QIN does not support further introductions of sea otters to the south of our treaty-reserved usual and accustomed fishing waters,” Capoeman wrote. And whether Fish and Wildlife proposes reintroductions largely hinges on community input like this, which has impeded previous wildlife efforts along the Oregon coast.

“One just has to look at the pushback against marine reserves in the Cape Argo area for an example of local sentiment on reductions of fishing opportunities,” wrote Debbie Bossley of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. “The Port of Coos Bay board of commissioners voted unanimously in 2012 to recommend to state government that there be no new marine reserves or marine protected areas at Cape Arago.”

Still, the service has conducted modeling for potential estuary locations in Oregon, including Tillamook Bay, Yaquina Bay and Coos Bay. “If we were to consider an estuary environment, we might start with those areas that provide the best habitat from a biological standpoint,” said Field Supervisor Michele Zwartjes, who emphasized the agency's desire to work with stakeholders to ensure the best possible outcomes for the sea otters, environment and local communities.

“As we continue to consider whether we would want to restore sea otters to the Oregon coast, it's important for people to think about the fact that this is a native species,” Zwartjes said. “I know that I've heard people say, well, they haven't been here for 100 years, and things have really changed since then, and yes, that's true, but from an evolutionary perspective, 100 years is just a little blip in an evolutionary timescale."

What is interesting, she said, is how many people don't realize how crucial the sea otter is to maintaining balance in the nearshore marine environment.

“I think with the loss of sea stars and the changes that we've seen in the kelp beds in the last decade or so, it just really underscores how important it is to have that kind of balance of redundancy in those systems so that they can maintain their resiliency going forward when there are changes to the environment, such as we're expecting from climate change."

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