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The sea otter, Enhydra lutris, is about three feet long, with a tail that adds approximately one more foot to its length. In shape it is like a river otter, which is slightly smaller in body but has a longer tail. Both animals have webbed feet, though the back feet of the sea otter are enormous by comparison, which is important for its life in the ocean. Before intense hunting the sea otter spent part of its life on land, but that behavior was changed so that it rarely is seen ashore, a case where humans altered the behavior of an animal in a drastic way. (1. Peter Matthiessen, Wildlife in America. New York: Viking, 1987, pp. 1-4-5.) Both river and sea otters are a rich brown color, but the head and neck of the sea otter are a tawny yellowish or grayish color. Habitat separates the two. The river otter’s range is widespread (over the interior of North America, for example) and the sea otter’s range is restricted to rocky shores with kelp beds from the Aleutians to northern California. (2. William H. Burt and Richard P. Grossenheider, A Field Guide to the Mammals of all North American species found North of Mexico. 3rd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976. pp. 60-63; plate 5).
In the seventeenth century, sea otter were found from Japan to the Kurile Islands, in Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands, in Alaska southward to Baja California. The history of the sea otter was well summarized in A Field Guide to the Mammals as follows: “Fur formerly extremely valuable and ruthlessly sought after. Once thought to be extinct, it is now increasing in numbers. Abalone fisherman begrudge the few abalones eaten by this interesting mammal.”(3. Ibid., p. 63). These three sentences by William H. Burt and Richard P. Grossenheider summarize the past and present of this animal which escaped extinction only by accident. What happened?
First the fur. The early peoples who lived in the Kurile Islands, Kamchatka, the Aleutians and in the places along the coasts of North America inhabited by sea otters did not value the sea otters particularly. The meat of the animals was not tasty; the fur was not warm or waterproof. The sea otter fur was used for decoration. Sometime in the seventeenth century a trade in sea otter developed between the Kurile Islands and China. The Chinese prized the luscious fur of the sea otter for its beauty. When Russian fur hunters (promyshlenniki) came to eastern Siberia in the mid-seventeenth century in their pursuit of sable, the trade in sea otter already existed. The Russian hunters sent the sable, fox, squirrel, etc. back to western Russia where it was traded to western Europe. They hunted along the rivers, trading with and taking tribute from the local inhabitants, in a system of trade dominated by forts erected at key points along the river systems. The weapons of the promyshlenniki quelled any resistance that the disunited, sparse populations of the areas could offer.
The Russian sea otter trade began as a continuation of trade in other furs. In 1697 Peter the Great declared the sable trade to be a monopoly of the government; in the same year, searching for new sources for sable, Russian hunters began their conquest of Kamchatka. The people of Kamchatka — the Itelmen — were not able to drive the Russians out, but the route from the mainland was long and hard, and the hostile Chukchi and Koraks in the north made the 2000 mile journey from Anadyrsk hazardous for Russians. (4. James Forsyth, A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony 1581-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 131-33).
In 1714 Peter ordered that a route by sea (700 miles) should be discovered. Sable for the European market was not the only prize, for the seas around Kamchatka were the home of the sea otter. So early in the eighteenth century Russians in Kamchatka were involved in the sea otter trade to China. In 1689 the Russians and Chinese settled their eastern border along the Amur River, and formal trade between the countries was established. The Chinese wanted sea otter furs; the Russians now could supply them. Peter the Great was interested in Siberia, not only for trade with China. So, he sent parties of explorers there.
Russian Navy officers Vitus Bering, Martin Spanberg, and Alexi I. Chirikov were sent on an expedition to Siberia by Peter the Great shortly before his death in January 1725. This was the First Kamchatka Expedition. Later these three were charged with the Second Kamchatka Expedition, which had as its purposes the mapping of the entire arctic coast of Russia, the discovery of sea routes to Japan and America, and the cataloging of information about the land and peoples of Siberia. For the sea otter trade, the voyages made by Bering and Chirikov to America in 1741 are important. Their two ships were separated, but both reached America. In trying to make a landing, Chirikov lost both of his ship’s boats, and thus had no way of obtaining fresh water. He returned to Kamchatka late in 1741, with difficulty. Bering and his crew had an even worse time, but did explore and map some of the coast and islands of North America. Then Bering headed west, under terrible conditions. The sailors suffered from scurvy and could not work the ship. At last, seeing land that they hoped was Kamchatka they headed for it and were shipwrecked. The place was the uninhabited Bering Island, of the Commander Islands, where Bering and many others died during the winter. In the spring the survivors built a small ship and sailed home, carrying with them a stock of 900 sea otter pelts. The value of this fur was enough to pay the expenses of the entire Second Kamchatka Expedition and set off the Russian fur trade rush to America. (5. ftn.).
From 1742 onward Russians sailed to the east. Initially the voyages were short and the men joined in loose companies for a single voyage. After the sea otter were depleted in the Commander Islands, the voyages were longer, and as sea otter were hunted out of the western Aleutians the voyages became longer still, three to five years usually. Thus the arrangements for companies became more complex. Russian government either met the hunters at their return or sent along agents to ensure collection of the government’s share. The Aleuts could not repell the intruders, who had guns and took hostages to force the Aleuts to hunt sea otter. The hunters claimed the islands for Russia and collected tribute from the Aleuts as well. As the sea otter were hunted out of the islands the hunters moved to the mainland and southward to northern California.
The Russians had the trade to themselves until the voyage of Captain James Cook to the North Pacific in the 1770s. During the voyage Cook charted the coast of North America searching for a Northwest Passage and he also visited Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands. During the voyage the English received some sea otter pelts for trade goods; they had no idea of their value until they stopped in China on their way home. The prices the Chinese paid for them nearly led to a near mutiny, for the sailors wanted to return for more sea otter and make their fortunes.
The sea otter trade continued, with the Americans and other Europeans contesting with Russia over it. The depletion of the sea otter in the mid-nineteenth century may have led to Russia’s sale of Alaska in 1867. The slaughter of sea otter continued, now by Americans. In 1911 an international treaty was made against killing sea otter. (Wild Animals of North America. Washington: National Geographic Society, 1960, p. 189). Because so few sea otter remained it was assumed that they would not survive. In 1938 biologists were astounded to see a group near Carmel, California, which was the beginning of the restoration of the southern sea otter.
In the north Japanese poachers threatened to finish off the few remaining animals in the Aleutians. Then came World War II, and the Japanese attack on the Aleutian Islands. The United States established its military presence in the islands which accomplished what no law had been able to do — stopped the hunting completely. The sea otter has made a slow but steady recovery, and is now re-established in several of the Aleutian Islands. One good place to see them is at and near Monterey, California. The sea otter is rare, but there are enough of these fine animals to cause abalone fishermen to protest in some areas! They deserve a few abalones in exchange for seeing these delightful animals, which swim on their backs, and are quite tame. Sea otter are also tool-using animals, and you can watch them as they swim with a stone on their stomachs, which they use to crack abalone shells. The sea otter is one of the animals that changed history, and in doing so nearly became extinct.