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As It Was: Sea Otters Face Uncertain Future in Oregon

When the North American fur trade reached its peak in the 1800’s, European and American trappers encountered an abundance of sea otters, especially on the Oregon Coast.  It wouldn’t last long.

The otters were essential for maintaining a healthy coastal ecology.  One of their roles was eating the sea urchins that kill the kelp forests along the coast. The sea urchins eat kelp stems, leaving the rest of the plant to drift away and die. 

Explorers and Indians alike coveted the sleek coats of the sea otters.  In 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reported Indians of high status valued the furs and wouldn’t sell or trade them.  Competing fur-trapping companies followed in the footsteps of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and depleted the otter population.  Today it is classified as an endangered species.

A movement to create a National Marine Sanctuary off the Oregon Coast has been endorsed by Oregon coastal tribes, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, and formally proposed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski in 2006.  It has faced stiff resistance from coastal fishing interests and communities.

Sea otter sightings in Oregon have increased in recent years, but there are no permanent residents.

Sources: Dobkins, Rebecca. “The Living Art of Oregon Tribal Regalia.”  Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol 110, No. 3, p. 426; "Sea Otters Are Coming Home to Oregon." Oregon Wild, Blog, edited by Quinn Read, Oregon Wild, 2 Jan. 2015, www.oregonwild.org/about/blog/sea-otters-are-coming-home-oregon. Accessed 21 May 2017; Rice, Peter. "GOVERNOR; MAKE ENTIRE OREGON COAST A SANCTUARY." Curry Postal Pilot, 17 Dec. 20151 [Brookings, Ore.] , www.currypilot.com/csp/mediapool/sites/CurryPilot/News/story.csp?cid=4253005&sid=919&fid=151. Accessed 21 May 2017.

Maryann Mason has taught history and English in the U.S. Midwest and Northwest, and Bolivia. She has written history spots for local public radio, interviewed mystery writers for RVTV Noir, and edited personal and family histories.  Her poetry has appeared in Sweet Annie & Sweet Pea Review (1999), Rain Magazine (2007), and The Third Reader, an online Journal of Literary Fiction and Poetry. In 2008 she published her first chapbook, Ravelings.  She organized a History Day for Southern Oregon.