Coastal tribes in Oregon hope to bring sea otters back to their community Sea otters were hunted to near extinction along the U.S. West Coast. During the century they have been away, a lucrative shellfish industry has grown in the waters where restoration would take place.

Coastal tribes in Oregon hope to bring sea otters back to their community

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This sound has been missing from the coastlines of Northern California and Oregon for more than a century.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEA OTTERS VOCALIZING)

FADEL: Sea otters - pretty cute, right? That group is at an aquarium at Monterey Bay, Calif. Some coastal Oregon tribes want to reintroduce sea otters to their former habitat, as Amy Mayer reports.

AMY MAYER, BYLINE: Sea otters used to live in the waters off Coos Bay, Ore. Peter Hatch is standing on a beach just south of there. He first remembers hearing about otters when he and his father were naming the boat they built in 1998.

PETER HATCH: My dad happened across elakha, for sea otter, in a Chinook jargon dictionary.

MAYER: So they named the boat Elakha, meaning sea otter. Then father and son learned of the historic connection between their people and the otters. The Confederated Tribes of Siletz and other local Native Americans prized the warm, waterproof pelts. But fur traders in the 19th century also valued the sea otters and decimated their population.

HATCH: We survived, and the sea otters didn't.

MAYER: So Hatch's father founded the Elakha Alliance to return the otters to Oregon.

HATCH: That leaves us with a level of responsibility to undo the wrongs that all people, whatever their particular background, we've had our own small part in committing.

MAYER: The older Hatch has passed away, but today the alliance has the blessing of three coastal tribes. Peter Hatch is the group's secretary.

HATCH: It is about restoring that relationship, about bringing back a relative.

MAYER: But there's a lucrative shellfish industry in the very waters where the otter restoration would take place.

DICK OGG: Wait for the beep.

MAYER: Dick Ogg and his two-person crew are throwing Dungeness crab pots into the waters off the coast of Bodega Bay, Calif., 450 miles south of Coos Bay, Ore. Ogg has nothing against otters.

OGG: You know, I personally - I love - you know, they're really neat little critters.

MAYER: But otters eat about a quarter of their body weight every day to stay warm in frigid Pacific waters. He's concerned sea otters would start chowing down on Dungeness crab.

OGG: If they bring the little guys up here and they wipe out the Dungeness crab fishery, it's going to wipe out the fishermen. That is our main source. That's our main opportunity to make our living.

MAYER: More than 800 people in Oregon and California hold commercial permits for Dungeness crab, and they employ many others who also rely on the fishery. Ogg knows sea otters once lived here and farther north. But now they stay well to the south.

OGG: I would like to ask the question about, why haven't they reached past that point?

MAYER: The answer to that can be found here on the roof of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. A caretaker drops mussels and crabs into a tank that houses adult female sea otters who raise rescued pups until they can be released.

JESSICA FUJII: The one time we need them to perform and be obnoxious.

MAYER: Sea otter program manager Jessica Fujii says there are natural hurdles preventing the otters from moving back into Northern California and Oregon waters.

FUJII: Both to the north and south ends of their current range is where there are a lot of white sharks.

MAYER: So the aquarium releases healthy pups in a nearby estuary where resident otters provide a community. Fujii says the next step would be to see whether the otters really could live again where they once thrived.

FUJII: Looking at a good habitat for the sea otters is their food risks from predators, as well as different diseases. All of that combined is going to have to be considered in finding kind of a potential otter utopia.

MAYER: And maybe Oregon could be that promised land. Otter advocate Peter Hatch says his Elakha Alliance wants to see a healthy marine ecosystem here in 50 years, one that includes sea otters.

HATCH: Success for us looks like a couple of hundred otters, not a couple of thousand.

MAYER: He hopes that would be enough to revive the connection between Oregon's coastal tribes and the marine mammals that once helped sustain them. For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer in Coos Bay, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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