Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sea Otters

Some information taken from wikipedia:

The Great Hunt

Natural re-colonization of Californian coast by Enhydra lutris nereis, the Southern sea otter.In the 1600s to the 1700s, Russia was heavily involved in the sable fur trade. Peter the Great declared that Russia should have the monopoly in sable furs, and that they should find new populations of sable to hunt. The Russians conquered Kamchatka, in the eastern edge of Russia, where they could harvest sable and sea otter fur. The Russians continued to explore the north Pacific, looking for sea routes to Japan and America. Vitus Bering and Alexi I. Chirikov, two Navy officers, were given the task of mapping the Arctic coast and finding a way to America. Chirikov managed to return to Kamchatka in 1741, after much difficulty. Bering's sailors suffered from scurvy, and were marooned on Bering Island, in the Commander Islands, where Bering died. There, the surviving crew spent the winter hunting sea otters and gambling with otter pelts. They finally returned home in 1742 with 900 sea otter pelts, enough to pay for the entire expedition. It was Bering's expedition that set off the Great Hunt that was to continue for another hundred years.

The Russians sent many ships to harvest otter furs, and soon depleted all of the otter populations in the Commander Islands. They moved on to the Aleutian Islands, which were already inhabited by the Aleuts. Since the Aleuts could not repel the Russians, the Russians did everything they could to get their hands on otter fur, even taking hostages and forcing the islanders to hunt for them. It wasn't only otters that were hunted; the Russians wiped out the local fox population, along with the Aleuts. It wasn't until 1776, when Captain James Cook reached the north Pacific that other nations joined in the hunt. Captain Cook was killed in Hawaii by natives, but his crew sailed on to the lively trading port of Guangzhou in China, where they found merchants offering outrageous amounts of money for even the smallest scrap of otter fur. The sailors almost mutinied in their desire to return for more otters. It was then that the English discovered the value of these skins.

The Great Hunt continued, with Russians, Americans, and other Europeans competing amongst each other for that prized commodity. The Alaskas were almost completely depleted of sea otters, causing the Russians to sell it to the United States in 1867. Now, the sea otters were being slaughtered by the Americans. It wasn't until 1911 that an international treaty was signed to stop the hunting of sea otters. So few otters remained, some estimate only 1,000-2,000 in the wild, that many assumed they would become extinct. In 1938, biologists found a group of sea otters along the coast south of Carmel, California. This group and other surviving groups would form the nucleus for the restoration of the sea otters.