Alanna Madden/Courthouse News

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — If asked to choose between the environment and commercial interests, most environmentalists would naturally side with the former. But the reality is more complicated, particularly when Indigenous tribes — long left out of the conversation on how the federal government navigates issues concerning natural resources and commercial interests — are brought to the table.

In the case of mitigating climate change by reintroducing sea otters to habitats where they once thrived, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife is faced with such a dilemma. Particularly so because bringing sea otters to the Northern California and Oregon coasts sounds promising to everyone except those who are already living near the endangered species.

Known by some local tribes as the Elekha, sea otters are a small marine mammal of the family Mustelidae, characterized by their furry, weasel appearance and their hallmark tendency to float on their back while using a rock to open hard-shelled invertebrates. The animal is objectively cute, with its furry white face that pops over the top of the ocean to stare out like a teddy bear with tiny eyes and an extra wide nose.

The southern and northern sea otters, Enhydra lutris, are distinct by geography and marginally by their DNA, as fur traders nearly hunted the animal to extinction during the 18th and 19th centuries. Southern sea otters live in small pockets along the Southern California coastline while northern sea otters live from northern Washington state to southeastern Alaska — the latter a direct result of preservation and reintroduction.

But prior to joining a growing list of near-extinct species by 1911, the same year of the International Fur Trade Treaty, sea otters thrived along the entire Pacific Rim from Hokkaido, Japan, all the way to Mexico. In fact, fossil evidence suggests ancestors of the Enhydra lutris first localized the North Pacific region 2 million years ago before evolving into the species we know today.

The term Enhydra lutris, meaning ‘in the water’ and ‘otter’ in Ancient Greek, is specific to the carnivorous mammal who must eat around 25% of its body weight a day in marine fare including crab, sea urchin, tube worms, clams, mussels and oysters. However, the sea otter’s vast diet is not simply a means of appeasing a high metabolism; the animal’s affinity for sea urchin, specifically, has proven necessary for the survival of kelp forests along the Pacific coastline.

The vast, towering kelp forests that sway along the shallow depths of the Pacific are pivotal to the abundance and diversity of aquatic species like rockfish, cod, herring and salmon, all while sheltering habitats from powerful waves, maintaining ocean acidity and sequestering carbon. But without the sea otters and their insatiable hunger, sea urchins multiply and create what is known as urchin barrens — an ocean desert of sorts where nothing else can survive.

Coincidentally, the disappearance of ancient kelp forests along the Oregon coast is what led to the reintroduction of sea otters in the Pacific Northwest. Noted extensively throughout Fish and Wildlife's feasibility assessment are citations of a report by the Elakha Alliance, a nonprofit founded by the late Dave Hatch of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

According to a letter of support from Siletz tribal chair Delores Pigsley, Hatch’s initial curiosity with sea otters was inspired by his discovery of maps from the early 1900s of Oregon kelp forests that no longer exist. Hatch’s unexpected death stalled the efforts of the Elakha Alliance until Bob Bailey, once active in several Oregon coastal issues, approached the Siletz tribe to reorganize and push efforts forward. Since then, the tribe has provided funds to support symposiums by the Elakha Alliance and has four tribal members sitting on the nonprofit’s board — including Hatch’s son.