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.
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 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:
- Analysis of DNA markers to determine the appropriate subspecies candidate for reintroduction.
- Building of tribal and political support for reintroduction.
- Public education on the importance of elakha to the coastal ecosystem.
- Assessment of the historical and current states of Oregon's kelp forests.
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
Oregon Coast Aquarium
Oregon State University
Portland State University
Shoreline Education for Awareness
University of Oregon