Oregon Coast

“Our coast is a story of contrasts.”

Tom Calvanese

Southern Oregon Coast, from the Rogue River past Port Orford and Cape Blanco to the Central Oregon Coast. 

Rocky Coast and Sandy Shore

The Oregon Coast is full of contradictions: It has amazing rocky reefs, perfect bull kelp habitat, but it also has long expanses of sandy shore and sandy beaches, not kelp habitat at all. Its coast is stunning and wild and full of life, yet only a tiny portion of it, less than two percent, is protected in five distinct marine reserves surrounded by marine protected areas, positioned almost equidistant from each other along the coast. The salty Pacific Ocean is interrupted by the outflow of seven great rivers along this Oregon stretch, bringing great quantities of fresh water to mix with the salt. Oregon’s fisheries are intense commercial enterprises, pulling crab, rockfish, and urchin out of the coastal waters, and yet the fishers are often the front line observers of ocean change. There are two coastal landmarks named for sea otters, Otter Rock and Otter Point, and yet there are no sea otters on the Oregon coast. Even looking locally at the southern coast around Port Orford in 2023, observations of bull kelp offer a tale of two reefs: sustained kelp beds at Rogue River Reef but kelp beds transformed to urchin barren just to the north at Orford Reef.

These contrasts illustrate the profound variety of ocean conditions found along the sparsely populated Oregon Coast, and the points of potential bull kelp abundance are out of sight, and not aligned with where people live. This makes telling the bull kelp story all the more difficult and important.

Sea Otter and Sunflower Sea Star: Are They Here?

No. There are no sea otters on the Oregon Coast.

Despite having two significant coastal rocky outcroppings with bull kelp habitat named Otter Point and Otter Rock, and Siletz tribal groups with historic connection to sea otters as regalia attire and other confirmed interactions from kitchen midden remains, there have been no sea otters on the Oregon Coast since the late 1970s. In the summers of 1970 and 1971, 93 sea otters from Amchitka Island were flown to the Oregon Coast, with only 25 surviving to be released at Coos Bay and Port Orford. This tiny population held on for ten years, some even having pups…but then they disappeared. There have been no sea otters on the Oregon Coast since. The Elakha Alliance, (Elakha is a Chinook trading language word for sea otter) is a group of tribal, non-profit, and conservation leaders telling the Oregon sea otter story and suggesting reintroduction of sea otters as essential for long term coexistence with a thriving and robust marine ecosystem. They have done a thorough and extensive feasibility study addressing the myriad issues surrounding sea otter reintroductions.

No. There are no sunflower sea stars here either. 

Sea star wasting disease wiped out the sea star population in 2013 and 2014, and only a handful of Pycnopodia have been found in Oregon waters since 2018. There is much talk of reintroduction of this species, but that is a huge and complicated endeavor.

River River River

1912 kelp map showing the surveyed bed #6 at Yaquina Head in yellow and simply observed (shown as circles of kelp squiggles)

US Dept. of Agriculture, surveys by W. C. Crandell.

On Sheet 25 of the Pacific Coast-Oregon kelp surveys, published in 1912, only the ½ mile or so of land hugging the coast is detailed, but the rivers (such as the Siletz and Yaquina rivers at right) are drawn extending into the interior blankness, punctuating this fundamentally linear description of an edge: the edge of a continent or, thought the other way, the easternmost edge of the Pacific Ocean as it hits the sandy or rocky shores of Oregon State. These rivers create a poetic refrain: Chetco River, Barnacle River, Pistol River, Rogue River…and on up the coast. Where each of these rivers come out into the Pacific, they dump enormous quantities of fresh water and sediment. Yet, as shown here, often this is where the bull kelp resides. At Chetco Cove, the two well sized kelp beds are marked to either side of the river opening. Moving north, a kelp bed is indicated just south of the Pistol River outflow at Mack Reef, and at the Rogue River Reef, the kelp bed is drawn around the reef, just to the side of the river delta itself. This is the kelp “grove” that today, despite the stressors of ocean temperature rise and increased purple urchin populations nearby, is doing pretty well, with healthy mature bull kelp reaching the surface in spring and summer 2023. In contrast, the bull kelp at Port Orford and Blanco Reefs just to the north have shifted almost completely to urchin barrens.

Chetko River Kelp Beds

Chetco River kelp beds, 1912 kelp maps, US Dept. of Agriculture, surveys by W.C. Crandell

The relationship of bull kelp to fresh water is one of those aspects of Nereocystis physiology that has not, until recently, been studied closely, but clearly there is something there. In experiments, bull kelp has a tolerance for lower salinity waters while their grazing predator, sea urchin, do not. Although released from predation by the disappearance of the sunflower sea stars, fresh water and bottom sediments from the river outflow inhibit urchin activity, possibly mitigating their grazing pressure, and creating refugial ocean spaces for bull kelp in these stressful times. 

While the punctuation of rivers tells an interesting kelp story, the punctuation of the marine protected areas are also revealing. A “marine reserve” is a designated area of coastal water which prohibits any human taking of any organism within that designated area. A “marine protected area” (MPA) usually surrounds the “reserve” and has specific rules about what can and cannot be fished or collected. Often, Tribes are rightly skeptical of new designations which might place more barriers between Indigenous people and first foods their families have managed sustainably for millennia; when consulted early and often, Tribes have become valued partners in creating and stewarding MPAs. At their worst, MPAs are another chapter in the attempts to alienate indigenous people from ancestral lands, at their best they are a mutual safeguard of our intertwined future on this thin rim of the ocean.

Kelp Forests in Transition

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are still a relatively new concept and Oregon Coast’s five MPAs just submitted their first decadal review. Bull kelp loss in each marine reserve and throughout the Oregon Coast has been devastating. As of 2023 the historic kelp at Red Rocks, the southernmost reserve, is gone, and the rockfish populations there have suffered without kelp habitat. On the Central Oregon Coast, Cascade Head MPA is at the entry of the Salmon River, a hugely important study site for juvenile salmon coming out of the river and transitioning to ocean life. Typically they will first hang out in the eelgrass at the river delta, and then graduate to the kelp beds offshore to acclimate to saltwater and avoid predators before they set off as ocean-going salmon. Without kelp beds, this transition can be tough and salmon populations can plummet. 

Cascade Head Biosphere Reserve
Photo by Duncan Berry

Cascade Head Biosphere Reserve, where the Salmon River comes out to meet the ocean. 

Photo by Duncan Berry

Tom Calvanese watched the rapidity with which the kelp beds at Orford Reef and Nellie’s Cove transitioned from thick and luscious kelp forest to dreaded urchin barren. As a former rockfish monitor and urchin diver, Tom has been in these waters a lot, and is determined to build the systems necessary to give the bull kelp a fighting chance to come back. With an intense can-do spirit, Tom founded The Oregon Kelp Alliance which has done the requisite field work—urchin culling and experimenting with outplanting processes—to start full scale kelp restoration at Nellie’s Cove at Port Orford and then expand these efforts to other sites, including Macklyn Cove, and Haystack Rock (aka Chief Kiawanda Rock) in Pacific City, OR. The partnerships and alliances built across communities are facilitating an expansion and a speeding up of restoration efforts.


This is just the beginning. Please go to our Oregon Resources Page to learn more about the kelp work being done in this region.