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How the Sea Otter Hunt Began

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by Robin Joy

In 1741, a Danish sea captain, Vitus Jonassen Bering, working under Czar Peter the Great, went out on his second expedition to explore the Siberian Pacific, to note whether or not the Asian Continent  was connected to the North American Continent. They also wanted to establish a Russian presence in the international world.  The brig St. Peter, which Vitus Bering was sailing, was shipwrecked on the islands today called Commander Islands. To survive, the men lived on what animals they could hunt.
 

Sea Otter

There were many sea mammals to hunt for meat. For warmth the men discovered the beautiful thick pelt of the sea otter. Vitus Bering himself did not survive this voyage, but his exploration was not in vain. From this voyage, Bering established the Russians in the North Pacific and in Alaska, and won the Russians acclaim in the international trade circles as the discoverers of the most valuable fur pelt in the world.

This voyage is well remembered as the changing moment of the North Pacific.  Bering’s crew took 900 sea otter pelts back to Russia. Many of those pelts were taken to the Chinese trade markets. The high quality and beauty of the sea otter’s fur soon made it the most valuable and most sought after pelt in Chinese trade circles. Sea otter fur became a sign of wealth and status for the Mandarins. They wore the fur as belts, capes, and trim on their silk robes. The pelt acquired the name ‘soft gold’ and each pelt brought between 80 to 100 rubles, a price higher than the famous sable pelts of Russia. 100 rubles was approximately the annual salary of many laborers working for the fur companies in the North Pacific. One fur could be worth as much as a year’s pay!

When the fur rush in the Alaskan waters began in the 1760s, like the sea otter, the way of life of the Native Alaskans of the North Pacific was also to drastically change.  Survival in the cold, cold north was difficult. The ocean’s creatures provided many of the things necessary for life  for the natives: food, materials for building homes and tools, as well as clothing. The Native Alaskans were expert at hunting on the Pacific with kayaks. For Native Alaskans, all animals were respected and known to have spirits, but the sea otter was particularly valued. To some Native Alaskans, the sea otter was known as “the brother.” Among some tribes only chiefs and experts were allowed to hunt and wear sea otter. The hunting expected of them impacted their ancient way of thinking.  The success of the Russian-American Company was solely due to the hunting skills of the Native Alaskans under company rule.

The Russian American Company, a profit making company, hunted with no regard for the future of the sea mammals. Nor did the merchant trade ships of the north Pacific. From 1803 to 1805 over 17,000 sea otter pelts were taken in California waters. At times, American trade ships worked together with the Russian-American Company. The American merchants supplied the ships and the Company supplied the labor of the Native Alaskans. A joint venture between the Company and American Captain O’Cain resulted in the highest known catch of otter in one year--9,356 pelts were taken. The Company hunted all the way from Trinidad Bay in Humboldt County to Baja California. Ivan Kuskov, Ross’s first manager, reported that over 2,000 fur pelts were taken in the first years at Ross. In the 35 years that the Russian American Company was in California, over 100,000 pelts were taken. Most of these pelts were taken on to China via these same merchant vessels. By the 1820s, the California sea otter had almost completely disappeared.

Coastal Native Californians were also familiar with the sea otter. Otters were used for clothing, bed coverings, for ceremonial garments and occasionally as food. It was also a valuable trade item with inland tribes. Though the Californians were skilled hunters, they could not rival the skills of the Alaskans. The Russian-American Company did not use their labor in the sea otter hunt.

In 1911 the ‘Northern Fur Seal Treaty’ signed by Japan, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States ended the indiscriminate hunting of marine mammals, including otters and fur seals. This protection was strengthened in California in 1913. In 1941 a sea otter refuge was established. Slowly the numbers of  California sea otters are increasing.

Today the sea otter population in California waters is around 2,000. Most of the sea otters are found near Monterey. The Alaskan and Kuril sea otters have come back faster than the California otters. Today, there are about 168,000 otters in the waters off the Russian and Alaskan coastlines

The sea otter is a member of the weasel family which includes skunks, minks, sables, ermines, wolverines, and badgers. The scientific name is Enhydra lutris, which means “otter in the water.” There are 12 species of otter, but only one of them is sea otter.

Sea otters are the largest members of the weasel family, but the smallest of all marine mammals. Like all mammals they breathe air, feed milk to their young, are warm blooded, and have hair on their bodies. They are also known as the ‘clowns of the kelp beds’. Unlike some marine mammals which use body fat or blubber to keep warm, the otter has very little body fat. Instead they have beautiful dense fur to insulate them from the cold Pacific waters. One square inch of a sea otter’s hide might have up to one million hairs! A human’s head only has about 100,000 hairs. In fact, the sea otter has perhaps the densest fur in the world. The only  place a sea otter doesn’t have fur is on the top of their front paws. Sometimes they can be seen floating on their backs and holding their paws out of the water. Their fur-less paws get cold so they warm them by holding them out of the cold water and rubbing them together.

Otters can swim up to speeds of 5 miles per hour, but they do spend a lot of time floating on their back. They use rocks or other tools to crack open the their favorite shellfish--abalone, sea urchin or crab. An adult may eat up to 15 pounds of food per day or a quarter of its weight.

Groups of sea otters are called ‘rafts’, which float among the kelp beds. The sea otters have not yet returned in large numbers to the area around Fort Ross. However, recently there have been more and more sightings of single otters. We hope that one day, the otters will once again live on our shoreline with their playful beauty.

 

 

 

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