In all the Northwest’s varied bestiary, probably no creature is such a crowd-pleaser, has the plain old cuteness, of sea otters. Their faces are expressive and eager, their rollicking behavior is adorable. They are what biologists call "charismatic megafauna"–large and often cute animals that attract public attention–par excellence. But sea otters are a lot more than just another pretty face.
Like wolves, their recent story is heartening. But much more remains to be done, a point that Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife is making with the recent release of its "Sea Otter Recovery Plan," which as far as I know has, unfortunately, been overlooked by local media. The recovery plan argues that the state’s sea otters should re-colonize much of their original habitat.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
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Sea otters–Enhydra lutris for Latin-speakers or taxonomists–elakha for those of you still speaking Chinook jargon—once ranged in number along the coasts of the North Pacific, from Russia and northern Japan, throughout the Aleutians, down the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia, to as far south as Baja. Scientists estimate that somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 sea otters inhabited this far-flung geography.
But things changed drastically in 1741 when traders and explorers realized that sea otter pelts were fungible assets because of the unusually dense fur that enables these warm-blooded creatures to survive in cold seawater without the large blubber reserves of whales or sea lions. Then in 1778, Captain James Cook made a bundle selling few sea otter pelts in China that he had picked up in the Northwest. Suddenly the race for sea otters was on.
Russians, Americans, and English merchants couldn’t kill sea otters quickly enough to satisfy the demand. Or more accurately, they couldn’t pay the native Indians to kill the otters quickly enough—often the merchants traded with the natives, who were more skilled hunters, for the pelts. By 1911, when sea otters were finally given international legal protection, only 1,000 to 2,000 remained, a minimum decline of 98 percent. None at all remained in British Columbia, Washington, or Oregon. (A small remnant population of a southern subspecies clung to precarious existence in central California.)
So northern sea otters were absent south of Alaska until the summer of ’69 when 29 sea otters were re-located from Amchitka Island, Alaska to the Washington coast. 14 of the otters died immediately from hypothermia induced by stress from traveling; and another 2 were shot. But in 1970, 30 more otters were released—this time in a more sensitive manner—and all apparently survived.
Not for another 7 years was a comprehensive census conducted of the sea otters. In 1977, biologists counted only 19, and in the years following that number dwindled to 14. But then in the 1980’s, the otters began to grow by leaps and bounds. By 1990, scientists counted 208 otters. By 2000, there were more than 500. Last year, officials counted 743.
A re-introduction in Oregon about the same time failed miserably: all 93 of the otters transplanted to Oregon died. But in British Columbia, a re-introduced population of 89 gained a web-footed hold and expanded greatly. Officials now estimate that 2,500 otters inhabit the province’s coastlines, mostly along northern Vancouver Island.
The sea otters of Washington currently range along the rocky and remote Olympic coast and in the western portions of the Straight of Juan de Fuca, though daring migrants have made their way as far as the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound, and even to the central Oregon Coast. But habitat studies show that Washington can support far more otters, between 1,400 and 2,700, if they can re-colonize the remainder of their former range, which would bring them east to Dungeness Spit and south to the mouth of the Columbia River.
At present, the sea otter population, while expanding encouragingly, is so tightly clustered that biologists worry that a single catastrophic event could irreparably harm their well-being. Oil spills, for instance, are probably their biggest threat—and the threat is persistent, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencerpointed out today.
Not only would geographic expansion improve sea otters’ long term prospects, the return of the otters could also improve ecological conditions. Like some other carnivores, sea otters affect many layers of the ecosystem they inhabit. Sea otters prey on spiny sea urchins, which in turn consume kelp, which in turn provides habitat for near-shore species. Some researchers believe that when sea otters were extirpated, the urchins devoured vast native kelp forests. Returning sea otters may be a harbinger of more complete and fully-functioning marine ecosystems.
Here’s hoping the state’s recovery plan goes off without a hitch. I’d love to imagine a sea otter-filled future for the Northwest.