Who is this new Oregon sea otter? Will it help rebuild its species?

A sea otter has come a visiting and  Terry Dillman of the News-Times Observers first spotted it playing in the waters of Depoe Bay on February 18 and 19, 2009 in front of the Oregon Parks and Recreation sea_otter_cropped1Department’s Whale Watching Center.

The last of Oregon’s native sea otters were killed in 1906, and marine scientists are trying to determine the residency of this otter. Once they  inhabited the entire west coast of North America, sea otters were nearly hunted to extinction for their thick furs. Oregon’s last known native sea otter in Newport in 1906 and sold the prized pelt for $900, the rush to obtain pelts led to wholesale destruction, not only of a species, but the ecosystem that depended on it. “The 1911 Fur Seal treaty signed by Russia, Japan, Britain, and the United States, and a 1913 federal law in the United States effectively ended the harvest of the sea otter,” noted Debbie Duffield from the Portland State University Marine Mammal Program. “But by that time, the species was extinct in Oregon and Washington, and clinging to survival in California and Alaska.”

Despite dedicated recovery efforts in specific areas, sea otters are have vanished from the Oregon coast and large sections of their original range. Today small, sparse populations still cling to existence in Alaska, Canada, California, and Washington State.

This confirmed sea otter sighting in the waters of Depoe Bay has excited marine science enthusiasts.Jim Estes, an internationally recognized sea otter expert, confirmed that the visitor is a sea otter – a rare sight in Oregon near-shore waters these days. “There have been sightings through the years, so it’s not unprecedented,” said Jim Rice, coordinator of the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. “But most of the so-called sea otter sightings have been river otters.

It’s likely that this is a wandering animal from Washington or California.

Morris Grover, director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s Whale Watch Center located atop the Depoe Bay seawall, took clear photos of the unexpected, but welcome visitor from the U.S. Highway 101 bridge that straddles the entrance to Depoe Bay’s harbor. Estes, a former wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (retired) and currently an adjunct professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and ocean sciences at the University of California – Santa Cruz, reviewed the photos and confirmed its identity as a sea otter Wednesday. Morris and other observers watched the playful critter for five hours yesterday (Thursday) as it plied the waters in front of the whale watch center.

The Oregon Zoo in Portland and the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport house the only remaining examples of a species that once thrived here, and those are not the native Oregon species. Duffield said an attempt to reintroduce sea otters to Oregon launched in 1970 and 1971 “was not successful.”

The sea otters’ role as a keystone species in maintaining kelp forests. they presence is crutial to the structure and complexity of its ecological sea/kelp bed community. At one time, large kelp beds supported a diverse ecosystem along the Oregon coast and protected near-shore waters. Those forests provided shelter for fish and helped reduce coastal erosion by absorbing wave impacts. When hunters and trappers decimated the otter population, they took away the only natural predator of near-shore herbivores. A resulting boom in sea urchin populations destroyed the kelp and the balance of life in near-shore areas.

Restoring a balance to the kelp ecosystem

Marine biologist and Siletz tribal member David Hatch and the Elakha Alliance want to restore that ecosystem balance. Since 2000, the Elakha Alliance is preparing the way for the sea otter’s reintroduction in Oregon coastal water.  Through modern DNA matching they will find the proper subspecies for the sea otter reintroduction. Duffield and fellow PSU researchers have found by analyzing sea otter bones found in old Oregon coastal refuse heaps that the ancient Oregon sea otters  was more closely related to their southern cousins.

Setting a model for others to follow

1. The Alliance is building trust and respect between tribal and political support groups

2. Providing public education on the importance of elakha (sea otter) to the coastal ecosystem

3. Assessing the historical and current state of Oregon’s kelp forests.

4. Building an alliance between coastal tribes, agencies, organizations, and individuals committed to re-establishing the sea otter in Oregon’s coastal waters, the alliance represents a collaboration among the Oregon Zoo, Oregon Coast Aquarium, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the University of Oregon, Portland State University, Oregon State University, Oregon’s coastal tribal governments, and other groups and individuals.

One step at a time, using clues from the past and present to build the future.

The Siletz Tribe helped establish the alliance in January 2000 with a $5,000 donation from the Siletz Tribal Charitable Contribution Fund. For the past eight years, its members and associates have worked to find a way to restore the elakha  the Native American name for sea otter

Resources

Excerpts courtesy of  Newport News-Times – Terry Dillman  terrydillman@newportnewstimes.com. February 20, 2009.

http://www.newportnewstimes.com/articles/2009/02/20/news/news03.txt

Image courtesy of  SFWeekly.com http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/Sea_otter_cropped.jpg

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