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Elakha Alliance

"The most potent keystone species known in the world may be the sea otter."
— Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

Elakha populations once extended around the entire Pacific coast, from Mexico to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and Hokkaido, Japan. Today, although numbers in many areas have recovered, sea otters are still missing from large stretches of their original range.

The Elakha Alliance is an informal association of tribes, universities, agencies, organizations and individuals committed to restoring these vital creatures to Oregon's coastal waters.

Elakha were prized by European traders for their fur, "softer and finer than that of any others," according to Captain James Cook. Between 1742, when the Russian explorer Vitus Bearing visited the Alaskan coast, and the early 20th century, as many as a million otters were killed for their pelts.

The animal nearly went extinct.

Elakha map
Range of Elakha Populations

An international treaty signed by Russia, Japan, Britain, and the United States banned hunting in 1911, but their Pacific-wide population had already declined to fewer than two thousand individuals. None remained along the large swath of territory from Prince William Sound, Alaska to central California.

"In places where sea otters disappeared completely, an unexpected sequence of events unfolded," writes Edward O. Wilson in The Diversity of Life. "Sea urchins, normally among the major prey of the otters, exploded in numbers and proceeded to consume large portions of the kelp and other inshore seaweeds. In otter times, the heavy kelp growth, anchored on the sea bottom and reaching to the surface, was a veritable forest. Now it was mostly gone, literally eaten away. Large stretches of the shallow ocean floor were reduced to a desert-like terrain, called sea-urchin barrens."

Elakha Alliance
For more information, contact:
Dave Hatch
Elakha Alliance

Elakha are thus a "keystone species," one whose presence has the ability to dramatically change the structure and complexity of its ecological community. The missing kelp forests that once flourished with the help of elakha provided shelter for fish and helped to reduce coastal erosion by absorbing the impact of ocean waves.

"The ocean we see today is not the healthy ocean that belongs here," says Elakha Alliance co-founder Dave Hatch.

"The idea for the Alliance began when I was asked to help name a new research vessel at Oregon State University and offered the name Elakha, the Chinook word for the sea otter," recounts Dave, an engineer for the City of Portland and a member of the Siletz Tribe. "As I learned more about elakha history, I realized that the vast majority of Oregonians are unaware of their loss and of the devastating impacts that has had upon the near-shore and estuaries."

The Elakha Alliance was established in 2000 with the mission of preparing the way for the reintroduction of the sea otter to Oregon coastal waters. Goals include:

The first challenge tackled by the Alliance was the biological one.

A 1970–71 reintroduction effort failed to successfully establish an otter population on the Oregon coast. Ninety five sea otters from the Aleutian Islands were deposited on the Oregon Coast near Port Orford; those that survived probably returned north to colder waters. Within a few years all were gone.

The World Conservation Union's 1995 Guidelines for Re-Introductions state that, "An assessment should be made of the taxonomic status of individuals to be re-introduced. They should preferably be of the same subspecies or race as those which were extirpated, unless adequate numbers are not available."

With the earlier failure in mind, Alliance members Debbie Duffield, Virginia Butler, and Kim Valentine began research at Portland State University on elakha bones that are found in Oregon coastal middens. Their goal was to develop a set of DNA markers for determining whether the elakha that once roamed these shores were of a phenotype related to either the current Alaskan or Californian populations.

Their preliminary findings show that Oregon elakha had a southern sea otter connection.

Work continues on other Elakha Alliance goals. If you would like to assist this project, Ecotrust is accepting donations in the name of the Alliance. Please call 503.227.6225 during North American west coast business hours. We accept Visa, Mastercard, or American Express.

The Elakha Alliance is an evolving group and currently includes representatives from:

Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians
Coquille Tribe
Oregon Coast Aquarium
Oregon State University
Oregon Zoo
Portland State University
Shoreline Education for Awareness
University of Oregon

Learn More

Elakha In the News

Rare sea otter confirmed at Depoe Bay The Oregonian 2/19/09

Otters winning battle of wits Associated Press 11/16/05

A woodpecker's tale leads the way to Oregon's sea otter Oregonian 5/5/05

Sin of omission - Lewis and Clark, sea otters and the Pacific empire (part 1 of 2) Indian Country Today 11/03/04 (1.6mb pdf)

Sea otters: Off the 'sins of omission list'? (Part 2 of 2) Indian Country Today 11/25/04 (782kb pdf)

Sea otter's stay raises scientists' hopes Oregonian 10/17/04 (940kb pdf)

Why Did Lewis and Clark Cross the Continent? Tidepool 5/07/03

Science could foster reintroduction of sea otters Register-Guard 1/23/03 (794kb pdf)

Special Report: Restoring Oregon's Elakha Tidepool

Research Finding Imperils Sea Otter's 'Threatened' Status Seattle PI 9/02/02

Star Recruiter Oregon Stater 4/01/02 (1.3mb pdf)

Ought to Be Otters Here Register-Guard 1/20/02 (2.5mb pdf)

Otters critical to past, future ecosystems 2002 (1.2mb pdf)

New Hope for Sea Otters, Kelp Forests Skin Diver September 2001 (2.3mb pdf)

High Tech Help for Vanished Sea Otter Jean-Michel Cousteau Dispatch July 2001 (878kb pdf)

Oregon's Elakha Smoke Signals 6/15/01 (2.2mb pdf)

Looking for 'elakha' Oregonian 3/14/01 (1.7mb pdf)

Otters along coast thriving, potential clash with fisheries seen Seattle Times 2/14/01 (930kb pdf)

Who's Elakha Tidepool 2/08/01 (2mb pdf)

Return of the Sea Otter 2001 (3mb pdf)


Elakha Alliance Timeline

October 2002 - Oregon Public Broadcasting airs Sea Otter Special on their Oregon Field Guide television program.

May 2002 - At a meeting of Oregon's Ocean Policy Advisory Group, Coastal Tribes Representative recommends that Marine Reserves be utilized to help achieve state goals for ecosystem restoration. (more)

April 2002 - Preliminary genetic results point to southern otter connection. (more)

March 2002 - Elakha Alliance members teach a one-week curriculum in coastal ecosystem dynamics to students and gather feedback for refinement and publication.

November 2001 - National Congress of American Indians passes Resolution to support the cooperative efforts of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians and the Elakha Alliance to restore the coastal ecosystem and elakha population of Oregon. (full text here)

October 2001 - Confederated Tribe of the Siletz Indians donates $5,000 to the Elakha Alliance. (more)

September 2001 - Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians endorses and supports the cooperative efforts of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians and the Elakha Alliance to restore the coastal ecosystem and elakha population of Oregon. (more)

February 2001 - Elakha Alliance receives PSU's Provost's Award and genetic research commences.

January 2001 - Elakha born at Oregon Zoo is first surviving born-in-captivity Southern sea otter. (more - 1.3mb pdf)

January 2001 - Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians passes a Tribal Resolution that supports the efforts to plan for the reintroduction of elakha to the Oregon Coast. (full text here)

December 2000 - First meeting of the Alliance.


Astrid Scholz
tel: 503.467.0758
Download vCard

Jason Pretty Boy
Indigenous Resilience Fellow
tel: 503.467-0803


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