Blog originally written for CPAWS-BC. See the original here.
On October 18th, “Wally” the sea otter was discovered near Tofino with severe gunshot injuries. He was transferred to the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre at Vancouver Aquarium where he is making a steady recovery, although part of his flipper has had to be amputated and he will likely be left blinded.
But why would anyone shoot a sea otter? If videos on YouTube are any indication, sea otters are cute and cuddly, they love to play basketball and adorably hold hands (sea otters lock paws out in the ocean in groups called rafts to prevent them from floating away while they nap). However, the relationship between this charismatic creature and humans is more complicated than teaching basketball and watching them holding hands.Sea otters have the thickest fur in the animal kingdom, to keep them dry and warm in cold seas. The growing demand for sea otter furs in Europe led to the local extinction of sea otters in the 1800s at the hands of the first European settlers.
Unbeknownst to the plundering fur traders, sea otters are an important predator of sea urchins, a marine animal closely related to starfish. Sea urchins are effectively spiky underwater lawn mowers that graze on kelp and algae. The local extinction of sea otters meant that the urchins took over, eating kelp more quickly than it could grow, and the dense kelp forests began to disappear. These underwater ‘clear-cuts’ referred to as urchin barrens, are characterized by copious numbers of urchins and almost no kelp. Where there is no kelp there are no fish, or the myriad of other animals that depend on kelp forests, so an entire ecosystem was lost. Underwater deforestation.
Between 1969 and 1972, 89 sea otters were re-introduced to Checleset Bay in Kyuquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island as part of an emergency relocation from a nuclear testing site in Alaska. Since then, their populations have steadily increased to over 4,000 individuals and their range has expanded substantially to include most of the west and north coasts of Vancouver Island. Another, lesser-known population was discovered on the Central Coast in 1989, although they had likely been there for at least 10 years prior and were not intentionally re-introduced. This population is also expanding and now totals approximately 1,000 otters, according to the latest DFO surveys.
Sea otter populations have improved to the point where the species was down-listed on the Canadian Species at Risk Act from Endangered to Threatened and finally to Species of Special Concern in 2009. Growing numbers of otters has created conflict with the sea urchin fishery that was established in the absence of sea otters, as otters and humans are now both competing for food. Nevertheless, it is still illegal to hunt sea otters in BC and the species remains at considerable risk from a major catastrophe like an oil spill.
The proper balance of sea otter populations can be found. First Nations, scientists, fishermen, and concerned citizens continue to work together to balance the complex trade-offs of sea otter recovery and are working toward a sustainable, culturally sensitive, and ecologically sound sea otter policy. It is through these dedicated efforts that we ensure that these charismatic top predators are never extirpated from our coast again.
I leave you with a poem in honour of Wally, which I think sums up the situation.
Ode to the Wally the Sea Otter
Let us go back to an earlier time
And describe a most heinous biological crime.
We removed a key species from the top of the chain
Making coats for a Frenchmen, a Brit, or a Dane.
Sea otters once ranged from Alaska to Cali
But fur traders arrived and rang up quite a tally.
So by 1920 the last otter was gone
They hunted those fur balls from dusk until dawn.
Effects were wide-ranging, the grazers did thrive
With that mammalian menace no longer alive.
Those ravenous urchins they ate all the kelp
With ample abalone offering help.
But by ‘69 we aspired to see,
Sea otters return to the coast of BC.
So we re-introduced them to the west of Van Isle
Their range slowly expanded mile by mile.
Otters scooped up the urchins, the clams and the crab.
Eating all of the creatures their paws could well grab.
And densities of prey subtidally fell
Substantially more where otters did dwell.
But not all were thrilled by the otters’ return.
No longer endangered, but Special Concern.
Conflict it grew between humans and otters
Competing for shellfish in the same stormy waters.
And so here’s a story of an otter named Wally
The victim of a shameful & deplorable folly.
He was found in Tofino, weak and unwell
Without speedy action we’d hear his death knell.
In came Vanaqua, vets renowned and adept.
The demise of the otter they would not accept.
X-rays displayed that Wally’d been shot!
Efforts to save him would not be for naught!
A flipper was injured, got partly removed
And Wally’s condition began to improve.
But his eyes weren’t so lucky and he lost his vision
Because of one awful act of derision.
Wally embodies an issue much bigger
So I hope that his plight will set off a trigger.
To continue discussions, creative and clever
And ensure that sea otters roam our coast forever.
Josh Silberg is a Master’s of Resource and Environmental Management Candidate at Simon Fraser University in the Coastal Marine Ecology and Conservation (CMEC) Lab. His project focuses on the indirect effects of sea otter recovery on the Central Coast of BC on reef fish size, abundance, and diet. He is also a (very) amateur poet. The views in this article are his and do not reflect any official position by the CMEC lab or its members.