Sea Otter Trade

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SEA OTTER TRADE. Europeans and Americans first ventured to the North Pacific coast of America in the late eighteenth century in pursuit of sea otter skins. As the Pacific counterpart to the Atlantic beaver trade, the sea otter trade led trappers into the North Pacific, where they established bases from the Aleutian Islands to Baja California. In China, sea otter furs were exchanged at good profit for prized Oriental goods.

Russia and Spain were the pioneer nations to engage in the sea otter trade. After Vitus Bering's expeditions in the early eighteenth century, promyshlenniki (fur traders) pushed eastward, and in 1784 they established the first permanent Russian settlement in America, on Kodiak Island. In the same year, Spain organized a sea otter trade between California and China. At the opening of the nineteenth century, American and Russian traders entered the California sea otter fields, where in the face of strong opposition they poached throughout the Spanish period. After 1821 the liberal commercial policy of independent Mexico stimulated the California sea otter trade, and many Americans became Mexican citizens to participate in the business. Between 1804 and 1807 it is estimated that almost 60,000 furs were taken by American vessels, while the period 1808–1812 yielded nearly 50,000.

The sea otter trade ended once hunting nearly exterminated the animals. In general, the fur areas were exhausted in the order they were opened. Kamchatka and the Aleutians were depleted by 1790, Kodiak by 1805, Sitka to Nootka Sound by 1820, and California by 1840. A treaty signed in 1910 by the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and Japan banned the hunting of sea otters. In the 1930s several sea otter colonies were discovered in the Aleutians and along the California coast, and by the mid-1970s the sea otter population numbered about 50,000.


Buell, Robert Kingery. Sea Otters and the China Trade. New York: D. McKay, 1968.

Gibson, James R. Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785–1841. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992.

Ogden, Adele. The California Sea Otter Trade, 1784–1848. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941.

AdeleOgden/h. s.

See alsoAlaska ; Aleutian Islands ; Fur Trade and Trapping .