Richard Ravalli teaches history at William Jessup University. He is the author of Sea Otters: A History which is now available.
Elakha—the Clatsop-Chinookan word for sea otter—has been absent from the coast of Oregon since the 1970s. Scholars at Oregon State University and the nonprofit organization Elakha Alliance are attempting to understand why the animals left the state after being moved there from Alaska, and whether or not conservationists should try again. Quoted in a recent Seattle Times article, OSU professor Leigh Torres notes the mystery involved in the local disappearance of the otters: “What’s interesting about the previous, failed reintroduction effort is that otters were doing well to begin with for the first couple of years. …Then they sort of split town and just weren’t seen again.”
The Oregon group of sea otters was one of several transported from Alaska to sites throughout the Pacific Northwest in the wake of nuclear testing at Amchitka Island in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a way to save the marine mammals from the bomb and promote environmental recovery, officials introduced Amchitka representatives to nearshore locations in Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington State and Oregon. All but the Oregon population have survived. Where did they go? Unlike the trade ships that moved their skins across the Pacific or the scientific transports that relocated the animals alive, sea otters tend to not venture very far from their coastal homes. Whether the Oregon otters died or made their way to another regional population is apparently not known. Researchers and Native American environmental advocates like David Hatch are studying whether the state’s southern coast could hold hope for another attempt at reintroduction. Yet in analyses of the local ecology and if sufficient food and shelter exists for Elakha, I hope they will also look to Pacific history from before the 1970s.
For instance, just as it’s difficult to say where the translocated otters went, we really don’t know when a viable sea otter population was eradicated from the Oregon coast. A date somewhere in the early 1900s (and an area fittingly known as Otter Rock) is often cited in literature as the “last kill,” but it is relatively obscure, and even the biologist Karl Kenyon in his landmark study of the species surmised that the creatures could have gone extinct between the Columbia River and California as early as the mid-to-late 1800s. The case for Oregon otters gets somewhat worse the farther back in time we go. While the animal’s bones do appear in archaeological sites in the state’s current boundaries, and fur traders did collect pelts from the mouth of the Columbia River (both Russian and American hunters tried unsuccessfully to settle there in the early 19th century), there isn’t much in the way of evidence for otter hunting along this stretch of Northwest coastline relative to other areas where the animals historically lived. The eminent maritime historian Adele Ogden [The California Sea Otter Trade: 1784-1848, University of California Publications in History, 1941] discussed this geographic “gap” in otter habitat:
Although some sea otters were obtained along the Oregon and northern California coasts, even in the earliest hunting days they were found only in very few numbers. The vessels which entered the Columbia River traded mostly for land otter and beaver skins. Factors to be considered are that the Indians along the more northern coasts were extremely hostile, thus making barter difficult. Also, some of the early merchants did not trade there because of lack of good harbors. However, neither of these conditions explains why the later Russians and the Yankees, both of whom had expert Aleutian hunters aboard, came directly to California without hunting on the way. Trust the Aleut to go after otters if there were any to be had.
A view of Aleut native hunters as rapacious otter destroyers, not unlike the racially hostile views of their eighteenth and nineteenth century Russian-American overlords, should be questioned for various reasons. Yet I’m not sure that her larger point has ever been fully addressed. Can closer historical research shed light on whether sea otters were ever numerous south of the Columbia?
I hope the Oregon scholars will look to the past for answers. Currently, I’m exploring similar issues in sea otter history in Southern California, south of Point Conception. Once again, Ogden’s 1941 book—an irreplaceable study—suggests there was a relative lack of maritime fur gathering on the coasts adjacent to the Channel Islands prior to the Gold Rush. After 1850, sea otters were still pursued at the islands, as well as south along the Baja peninsula, and a century after a “rush” in the 1880s the animals were reintroduced at San Nicolas Island. Most of the 1980s herd soon dispersed but unlike in Oregon some are still at the Channel Islands, but generally not within in the “No Otter Zone” that was established on the mainland coast to protect Southern California fisheries from the expanding marine mammals. Enforcement of the zone (which wildlife officials abandoned after a few years) involved relocating otters if they crossed the boundary. But as with those who were forced to live in Oregon in the 1970s, did they even want to be there? More history will help with answers.