A marine member of the weasel family, the sea otter had one characteristic that would seal its doom: a long, wide, beautiful pelt that’s one of the warmest, most luxurious, and durable furs in existence. Otter fur catalyzed the Russian promyshlenniki to begin overrunning the Aleutians in the mid–late 18th century, sealing the doom of the Aleuts as well as the otters.
n 1803, Alexander Baranov shipped 15,000 pelts back to eastern Russia. Up until the 1840s, otter hunting was the primary industry in the Pacific, and when the Americans bought Alaska in 1867, nearly 1 million otters had been killed in the northern Pacific.
During the extreme lawless period in the last quarter of the 19th century, the otters were annihilated. In 1906 schooners cruised the North Pacific for months without taking a single pelt. In 1910 a crack crew of 40 Aleut hunters managed to harvest 16 otters. In 1911 otters were added to the International Fur Seal Treaty, giving them complete protection from everybody.
Small, isolated populations of otters had managed to survive in the western Aleutians, and their numbers have increased over the past century to roughly 100,000 today. Approximately 90 percent of the world’s sea otter population can be found in coastal Alaska. The otters are doing fine in Southeast Alaska, but in the Aleutians they have declined precipitously over the last decade, partly because of predation from killer whales, and are now listed as a threatened species.
For more on the current situation, visit the Fish and Wildlife Service’s website (http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/mmm).
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition