The Elakha Alliance is an Oregon-based nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring sea otters and the health of Oregon’s nearshore marine ecosystem. Named for the Chinook Indian word for sea otter, the Elakha Alliance brings together coastal Indian tribes, conservation organizations, academic institutions, community groups, individuals, and others interested in sea otter conservation and coastal ecology.
We invite other organizations and entities with interests in sea otter conservation and a healthy marine ecosystem to be Affiliate members. The Alliance is also interested in partnerships with businesses interested in supporting sea otter conservation.
POLICY & PLANNING
Work with managers and decision-makers to develop policies and take actions to ensure successful recovery of sea otters to Oregon's coast. We meet with federal, state, and tribal resource managers to discuss how best to accomplish our mission.
Reach out to the public to tell the story of sea otters on the Oregon coast and their importance to healthy marine ecosystems and coastal communities. We are giving presentations in communities along the Oregon coast and inland, and hope to use digital and social media to expand our story-telling reach.
Create partnerships and engage others to promote and strengthen sea otter conservation on the Oregon coast. We work with other entities such as the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Oregon Zoo, Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute, Oregon Wild, Oregon Ocean Science Trust, Oregon Wildlife Foundation, community organizations, state and federal wildlife agencies and others to chart a path to the restoration of sea otters on the Oregon coast.
Promote scientific research related to sea otters and their historic presence and importance to native people, their potential habitat, possible ecological limitations, cultural impacts, and implications for species resilience throughout their range.
Act as an information hub and clearing house about sea otters among various organizations, agencies, individuals, and stakeholders with interests in sea otters, coastal ecosystems and communities.
Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) were once an integral part of the marine ecosystem along Oregon’s coast.
They were part of contiguous populations of sea otters that lived along the shores of the north Pacific Ocean from Baja California, Mexico to Hokkaido Island, Japan. Sea otters were likely present when Oregon’s shoreline was farther to the west during low sea levels due to the last ice age.
Given their strong association today with the presence of kelp forests, sea otters were likely a key to the “Kelp Highway”; hypothesized to have facilitated the migration of early people southward from the Bering Strait along the Pacific coast.(1) As sea level rose as a result of melting continental ice sheets, the Pacific coastline... and sea otters...moved landward to the configuration seen today.
For at least 10,000 years, sea otters were an important part of the culture of early people along Oregon’s coast.
Otter bones are commonly found in middens (heaps comprised of animal bone, shells, and other artifacts from ancient human occupation) along the coast aside the remains of fish, shellfish, bones of seals, sea lions, birds and other animals. The artifacts in these middens give clues as to the importance of sea otters in the life of early native people as well as the composition and health of the coastal ecosystem sea otters once inhabited.
Studies of archaeological sea otter remains and modern genetic studies point to the Oregon coast as a transitional zone between southern sea otters found in California (Enhydra lutris nereis) and those to the north in Washington and British Columbia (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) and southeast Alaska (Enhydra lutris kenyoni and Enhydra lutris lutris).
Beginning in the mid-1700s, sea otters were aggressively hunted throughout their range for their rich fur pelts in the so-called Maritime Fur Trade, first by Russian hunters who reached as far south as northern California, then Spanish, British, and, briefly, American fur traders.(2)
Image: Bobbi Hall
Reports of fur traders show that sea otter pelts were collected near the mouth of the Columbia River and at Port Orford. But by 1810 sea otters were reported very scarce on the Oregon coast, mirroring their disappearance to the fur trade elsewhere along the Pacific coast. A Harper’s Magazine article in October, 1856 reported sea otter hunting near the mouth of Coos Bay. They were eliminated entirely from Oregon in the early 1900s.(3)
Today, modern place names such as Otter Rock, near Newport, and Otter Point, near Gold Beach, remind us of their former presence.
Kelp forests buffer ocean wave action nearshore, helping to protect the shoreline from erosion. Kelp forests increase overall marine productivity and sequester, or capture, large amounts of carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere.(6)
For more than a century, Oregon’s marine ecosystem has been without this keystone species. While this ecosystem appears “healthy", it is highly likely that today’s nearshore marine ecosystem is different from, and likely less resilient, than when sea otters were present. Understanding this shifting baseline is critical to strengthening the resiliency and productivity of Oregon’s marine ecosystem against effects of climate change and other human impacts on the marine environment.
ECONOMIC & SOCIAL IMPACTS OF SEA OTTERS
If experience in other Pacific coast areas is a guide, the return of sea otters to the Oregon coast will likely have a mix of economic and social impacts depending on the location of their return and the number of otters. But in time, sea otters would likely have a profound impact on the diversity and productivity of Oregon’s nearshore ecosystem that, in turn, would result in an overall benefit to commercial and recreational fisheries that rely on a healthy marine ecosystem.
If they return to one or more estuaries, sea otters would likely increase water quality, reduce the presence of the invasive green crab, and promote the growth of eelgrass. Sea otters would also likely be a draw for outdoor enthusiasts and recreationists as they are in California and Alaska, and be a symbol of pride in some communities. In the long run, a robust population of sea otters would likely result in an increase in kelp beds, which would capture and store carbon dioxide, a leading cause of ocean acidification.
However, a growing population of sea otters in some areas could disrupt existing patterns of catch and consumption by some ocean users; such as sea urchin harvesters, commercial and recreational crabbers, and other harvesters of shellfish. Such competition and conflict between sea otters and humans is present today in several locations in southeast Alaska where the number of sea otters is in the thousands. But because sea otters do not readily migrate, have small home ranges, and have only one pup per year, their population growth and geographic spread will be slow. So it will be important to identify and anticipate such potential conflicts and choose release sites to minimize chances of conflict with other uses.
The Elakha Alliance will help write the next chapter of Oregon’s sea otter story by seeking funds to support scientific research to better understand the impacts of their return to Oregon’s marine ecosystem and coastal communities.
ECOLOGICAL IMPACT OF SEA OTTERS
Sea otters play a unique and critical ecological role in the marine environment. They are a "keystone species”, meaning a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. They are also termed an “umbrella species”, whose protection indirectly protects many other species that make up its ecological community.
The presence of sea otters once had a profound impact on communities of early people on the Oregon coast. Today, the impact of sea otters on coastal ecosystems is an important story for modern coastal communities as well.(5) A healthy, established population of sea otters can result in more extensive and richer kelp forests that, in turn, attract and retain eggs, larvae, and juveniles of many species of fish and shellfish, including those of commercial importance.
SEA OTTER TRANSLOCATION TO OREGON
Sea otters returned briefly to the Oregon coast in the early 1970s when nearly 100 animals captured in the Aleutian Islands were released at Cape Arago (40 animals in 1981) and Port Orford (29 animals in 1970, 24 animals in 1971).(4a) Some animals appear to have soon left the area of their release, while others did not. Even though pups were subsequently reported in some places, the entire population of animals declined dramatically by 1975 and disappeared by 1981 for reasons that are still not well understood.(4b) Sea otters remain absent on the Oregon coast except for an occasional stray individual, perhaps from the Washington population.
Interestingly, during this same time period of 1969 - 1972, other sea otters were captured in the Aleutian Islands and relocated to the coasts of Washington, British Columbia, and southeast Alaska, forming the basis of populations that exist today.
This includes many individuals who were found as pups abandoned on the beach, reared in a foster-mother environment at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and then released into Elkhorn Slough which is a National Estuarine Research Reserve.(8a) The presence of sea otters within the Elkhorn Slough estuary has resulted in a number of ecological impacts that have helped the estuary to recover from effects of pollution entering from agricultural and urban areas in the watershed.(8b)
Sea otters in California are descended from a remnant group that escaped fur hunters and survived in an isolated area off the Big Sur coast. Overall numbers seem to be increasing slowly, with 3,104(9) animals counted in the 2017 survey.(10) However, localized declines at the northern and southern ends of the range and inability of the population to expand to the north, continue to be a cause for concern. Predation by Great White sharks appears to be one factor in preventing sea otters from migrating north of their present range.
WASHINGTON has a population of northern sea otters, Enhydra lutris lutris, a larger subspecies. Today’s animals descend from 59 animals that were relocated from the Aleutian Islands in 1969 and 1970 to two sites on the Olympic coast.(11) The 2017 census counted 2,058 animals, the highest recorded, confined to the Olympic coast where its numbers are increasing in the southern part, and declining in the north. In 2017, large rafts of females with pups were observed in the southern part of the survey area.(12) A few animals are occasionally seen in Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and along the Oregon coast at places such as Depoe Bay, Yaquina Head, and Cape Arago.
BRITISH COLUMBIA also has a growing population of northern sea otters. As in other areas of the Pacific coast, sea otters were hunted to extinction by the Maritime Fur Trade. In 1969, 1970, and 1971, a total of 89 animals from the Aleutian Islands were reintroduced to two sites on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The population has steadily increased, spreading along the west coast of Vancouver Island, and small areas of the mainland.(13) However, the sea otter remains a “Species at Risk” in Canada.(14)
Today, sea otters are found on the rocky coasts in parts of California, Washington, British Columbia, southeast Alaska and many islands in the Aleutian Island archipelago. Several of these population groups are isolated from others by long stretches of coastline with no resident sea otters. There is a gap of more than 840 miles between sea otters in California and those in Washington. Oregon’s coast, which is 360 miles long, extends from the California border about 400 miles north of the sea otters near Santa Cruz, to the Columbia River which is about 80 miles south of the population on the Olympic Peninsula.
CALIFORNIA is home to about 3,000 southern sea otters, Enhydra lutris nereis, which are a subspecies that is smaller than those further north. The population is confined to about 13% of its historic range, from just north of Santa Cruz to just south of Point Conception.(7) A subpopulation lives around San Nicolas Island in the Channel Islands. Sea otters are found primarily on the open coast, but a significant number of animals live in Elkhorn Slough, an estuary fronting Monterey Bay between Monterey and Santa Cruz.
HUMAN / SEA OTTER INTERACTION
Sea otters are resilient and resourceful animals. But their physiology makes them vulnerable to a variety of human threats.
Because they have no fat and depend on their dense fur for insulation against the cold ocean water and on high metabolism to provide necessary internal temperatures, they must keep their fur dry and full of air at all times by grooming after each dive for food. This characteristic makes them especially vulnerable to oil spilled into the water that can compromise this insulation and cause hypothermia and can poison the animals as they ingest oil during grooming.
They live close to shore and they are vulnerable to a variety of human-caused degradations.(15) Along the California coast, animals are subjected to a wide range of water-borne pollutants including oil from spills, parking lots and other sources, agricultural and lawn care chemicals contained in river runoff, sewage from coastal communities that contains bacteria, pathogens, and chemicals, non-point stormwater runoff with bacteria and viruses from pets, and harmful algal blooms that can result from water with high nutrient loads and warmer temperatures. In other places, sea otters compete with humans for food such as clams, crab, and abalone, often coming out the loser.
Changes in ocean conditions resulting from climate change pose new threats to sea otters. Warming ocean waters accompanied by increasing acidification can affect the growth and spread of kelp forests, urchins and other shellfish that are food for sea otters. These changing conditions can also promote the growth and spread of toxic algae that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning.
Sea otters are also vulnerable to shark attacks, especially when kelp is absent and sea otters are unable to take cover.(15) Judging by the number of shark-bitten sea otter carcasses found on California beaches, sharks do not appear to target sea otters for food but instead seem to bite...and thus fatally wound...sea otters in an attempt to learn what is suitable prey.
Sea otters can provide a buffer against the effects of climate change by enabling the growth of kelp and other marine algae which sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide.(16) Their presence can also help curb the growth of sea urchins which can result from a die-off of sea stars due to a “mass wasting” syndrome that has affected the Pacific coast in recent years. Overall, the presence of sea otters in coastal ecosystems can help retain diversity and productivity that create conditions of resilience against the effects of climate change.
SEA OTTER CONSERVATION & THE OREGON COAST
Restoration of sea otters to the Oregon coast must be considered within the larger picture of sea otter conservation along the entire Pacific Rim.(19) At present, there is a gap of more than 500 miles between populations in California and in Washington. And while sea otters are on the road to recovery in California, Washington, and British Columbia, that road is fraught with peril and uncertainty.(17) Returning sea otters to the Oregon coast, whether the open ocean coast or in an estuary, could help the chances of overall survival by placing them in habitats that are in relatively good condition and providing an opportunity to bring southern and northern sea otters together to increase genetic diversity and resilience.(18) (19)
LEGAL STATUS OF SEA OTTERS
The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is listed as a Threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. It is listed under Oregon law (Oregon Revised Statutes 496.171-496.192) as a Threatened species using criteria established in regulation by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission (Oregon Administrative Rules 635-100-0105).(20) At present, neither the federal government nor the State of Oregon has adopted a sea otter recovery plan for Oregon as required under the federal law.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, rather than the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has jurisdiction over sea otters under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.(21) The USFWS has active management programs for sea otters in California, Washington, and Alaska.
Although the entire species of sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is not listed as a threatened or endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, the California subspecies nereis is listed, along with a separate Distinct Population Segment of the subspecies kenyoni in SW Alaska. Both of these listed entities have recovery plans in place as required under the ESA. The species is listed under Oregon law (Oregon Revised Statutes 496.171-496.192) as a Threatened species using criteria established in regulation by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission (Oregon Administrative Rules 635-100-0105).20) At present, the State of Oregon has not adopted a sea otter recovery plan for Oregon.