2022 Year in Review for the Elakha Alliance

Written by Bob Bailey, Elakha Alliance Board President

We Set Sail
On November 9, 2017, a group of seven people gathered in Siletz, another joined by telephone, and agreed to incorporate the Elakha Alliance as a non-profit organization to pursue restoring sea otters to the Oregon coast. This decision was the culmination of many discussions among many people over the previous year, sparked by the passing of David Hatch, long a champion of such a mission.

So, with a set of ByLaws and fingers crossed, we filed papers with the Oregon Secretary of State in March 2018 and were soon a registered entity in the State of Oregon. We found a fiscal sponsor, the Oregon Wildlife Foundation, applied for and obtained a federal employee identification number, and began making our presence and mission known. A small grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust enabled us to spend much of 2019 engaged in strategic planning which gave us the foundation for all the work that has taken place since and enabled us to speak clearly with the public and funders about our mission.

Today, five years later, despite Covid restrictions and despite being short-handed, the Elakha Alliance has grown as an organization, made substantial progress in our mission. We have become an influential participant in regional discussions about sea otter conservation and the future of our nearshore and estuarine ecosystems. In five years much has changed for Elakha and for the world around us.

A Year in Review
Executive Director: 2022 was a year of accomplishment and growth. Perhaps the biggest sign of that maturity occurred in July when our first-ever Executive Director, Jane Bacchieri, joined the team and began to get her arms around the work of the Elakha Alliance. Jane has strong roots on the Oregon coast, having worked for South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve at Coos Bay and later for the Oregon Coastal Management Program. She was a natural resources policy advisor to Governor Ted Kulongoski and then spent more than a decade leading major programs for the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services. The presence of such a skilled Executive Director not only ensures continuity and cohesion to our work but sends a signal to potential funders that we are a mature organization worthy of support.

Studies completed: In January, our science-based Feasibility Study was completed and in May, we received our long-awaited Economic Impact Assessment. The Feasibility Study concluded that restoring sea otters to the Oregon coast is feasible but cautions that care must be taken to account for a number of potential effects. The Economic Assessment concludes that, overall, the economy of the Oregon coast will benefit from the return of sea otters but that some economic sectors may suffer negative effects.

Both documents are available to the public on the Elakha Alliance website. We are working with an editor to produce the Feasibility Study as a print publication (I am a big fan of books in a library) as well as a searchable on-line reference on the Elakha Alliance website. 

Sea Otter Brews: In March, just as the Covid-related mask mandate was lifted, we held the world’s first-ever Oregon Otter Beer Festival at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry! Thirteen breweries from around Oregon participated, bringing their own special concoction brewed with Maris Otter Malt, a favorite malt of craft brewers. This fun event raised more than $20,000 to support our work, raised awareness of our mission, and raised the bar for our outreach events! We will do it again in April 2023 so get your tickets and come enjoy!!

Federal sea otter assessment: In July , 2022, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released a report to Congress on the feasibility of returning sea otters to their former habitats on the northern California and Oregon coasts. The assessment was required by language in the USFW 2021 budget inserted by Senator Jeff Merkley. The assessment built upon the Elakha Feasibility Study and concludes that restoring sea otters in Oregon and northern California would have multiple ecological benefits, but also cautioned that more work is needed to understand potential social and economic impacts. This assessment has set the stage for regional conversations with USFWS and other partners about restoring sea otters in northern California as well as next steps for their return to Oregon.

Tribal Youth Internship: Over the summer we sponsored our first tribal youth internship with two students from the University of Oregon who created a beautiful and provocative traveling exhibit that is now being shown at various locations on the Oregon coast. This display has sparked interest in the cultural significance of sea otters to Oregon’s coastal indigenous people.

Outreach and Communications
Spreading the word about and building support for the Elakha Alliance and our mission is central to our eventual success. Chanel Hason, our Director of Outreach and Community Relations has spent a busy year doing just that! In addition to growing the reach of all of our social media platforms and ensuring that the content is interesting, informative, and fun, she has updated our website, supervised our Tribal Youth Intern Program, single-handedly organized the Oregon Otter Beer Challenge, represented Elakha in person at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Oregon Zoo, and the Exploding Whale Celebration in Florence, and built relationships with numerous organizations and individuals to help us spread the word.

We also expanded our capacity to do outreach on the southern Oregon coast, a region shown by the Feasibility Study as having high habitat potential for sea otters, coast by adding a South Coast Community Liaison to the team.

Science-related Deliverables
Elakha initiated or completed several science-related projects to support our mission:

Proposed amendments to the Oregon Nearshore Conservation Strategy: prepared by Sea and Shore Solutions with the assistance of a team of experts, these proposed amendments provide new information and analysis about kelp forests, eelgrass beds, and sea otters for consideration by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in updating the Oregon Nearshore Conservation Strategy, which is a part of the overall statewide Conservation Strategy. The strategy is a principal basis for funding decisions by the Oregon Conservation and Recreation Fund.

Assessing Shark Presence in Potential Sea Otter Reintroduction Areas in Oregon: funding from the Oregon Conservation and Recreation Fund has enabled Elakha to contract with shark researchers at Oregon State University and California State University Monterey Bay for field research to identify and assess the spatial and temporal presence of two species of shark, White and Broadnose Seven-gill whose distribution and abundance in Oregon is unknown. While sea otters are not targeted prey, bites from these shark species have resulted in mortal injuries to sea otters in California. This is important, pioneering work that will help inform decisions about sea otter translocation sites.

Travel and Recreation Impacts of Sea Otter Populations on Coastal Destinations: with funding from the Oregon Coast Visitor Association and the Wild Rivers Community Foundation, the Elakha Alliance has contracted with a leading economic and market research firm to study how an expanded population of sea otters off the southern Oregon coast could impact local economic sectors related to travel and outdoor recreation. The study will evaluate how the presence of sea otters has affected travel-related economies in five destinations on the West Coast and will survey travelers in ten “feeder markets” with interests in visiting the Oregon coast.

Translocation Planning: late in the year we began to think seriously about the practical process of putting together a detailed plan for actually translocating sea otters to Oregon, including the time it will take and what combination of experts and partner organizations will need to be involved. We have created a broad outline of the many considerations in planning for translocation, everything from the source and number of animals, their veterinary care at every step of their journey, transportation, release, pre- and post-release monitoring, and identifying actual release sites. We hope to hire a Project Manager in 2023 to work with partners, agencies and stakeholders to further refine this outline and launch the process.

We look forward to 2023!