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The Aleut and the Otter

Almost all of us know that the sea otter barely escaped extinction during the past century. Few are aware that the Aleuts, who populated the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands (principal habitats of the sea otter) almost suffered the same fate, at the same time, and for the same reason.

In the summer of 1742, the earliest Russian explorers of North America, from Vitus Bering's crew, delivered to the shores of Siberia a cargo of furs. They were otter skins. Immediately, these became favorites of nobility around the world.

This was an age when furs were fashionable. Suddenly it was found that sea otter fur was the most desirable of all. It was soft, thick and waterproof. It retained heat to a remarkable degree, and was a beautiful dark brown color with silver overtones.

By the end of the 18th century, the Russians discovered that they had a very salable product on their hands, and came over in droves to club and shoot these gentle and playful animals.

After about 50 years of this slaughter, they found that they were running out of sea otters, so they employed the more canny native people--the Aleuts--to hunt them. "Employed" is not a very precise term, because the persuasion used was holding women and children hostage until a quota was filled. Even an occasional successful hunter with only a meager yield was shot to "encourage the others" to try harder.

By this time, the sea otter had all but disappeared. But so had the Aleuts. By the Russians' own estimate, the Aleut population had fallen from about 20,000 to less than 2,000, and they decided to call the whole thing off--at least to the point of not killing otter females or pups anymore, and the otter population began to recover. As for the Aleuts, many were transplanted to southeastern Alaska, where they demonstrated superb innovative construction and engineering skills.

After the purchase of Alaska by the Americans in 1867, the sea otter population built back to about 100,000 by the turn of the century, but the extremely high prices still being demanded for their pelts could not hold off the French, British, Canadian and American fur hunters and they nearly vanished again. In 1913, the Territory of Alaska prohibited the taking of sea otters within a three-mile limit, but many thought that the move was too late, and that the otter was doomed to extinction.

Remarkably, they recovered to the point that limited "harvesting" was permitted again as late as 1972. Today, it appears as if the sea otter population of an estimated 130,000 in Alaskan waters (figures from the Alaska Geographical Society) has returned to the peak that it had reached before the Russians arrived.

So the otter has recovered, but has the Aleut? According to Bonnie Boedecker of the Alaska Native Health Organization in Anchorage, the 1980 census lists slightly less than 2,000 still living in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, and probably more than 8,000 who have moved to the mainland.