Ancient coexistence

The reintroduction of sea otters to the coastal waters of British Columbia in the 1960s and ‘70s brought about an ecological rebalance and has provided an economic boost to the area. But is this conservation success story as straightforward as it seems?

Words by Marguerite du Plessis
Photographs by James Thompson

If you paddle your kayak into the emerald green waters off British Columbia’s Pacific Coast, you may be fortunate enough to spot a sea otter gently floating on its back, its body wrapped in a blanket of kelp as its dextrous hands work to crack open a clam. This appetite for shellfish places sea otters in a complex and deeply interconnected relationship among the marine life that shares its habitat, including humans. 

Humans and sea otters have shared this coastal ecosystem for more than 12,000 years. Once a rare sight in these waters, northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are a conservation comeback story. Considered extinct in much of British Columbia by the turn of the 19th century, a 2017 count by the Canadian department of fisheries estimated around 8,000 sea otters along the west coast of Vancouver Island. The broader ecosystem has benefitted from this resurgence, including those who have profited economically. Despite this positive benefit, we humans have a complicated relationship with sea otters. 

Our relationship with northern sea otters has been shaped by the forces of evolution and history. Otters have held the distinction of being revered for their pelts, but they are also viewed as troublesome competition by coastal inhabitants who labour meticulously in an effort to cultivate shellfish such as clams and crabs from the intertidal zones. For thousands of years, these groups struck a delicate balance, but European colonisation has pushed that equilibrium to the extremes, with unexpected consequences. 

Unlike other animals that threaten crops tended by humans, otters have something else that has made them a target: fur. Sea otter fur is a marvel of evolution. With up to one million hairs per square inch, it is the thickest of any mammal. The layers help to trap air bubbles, creating natural insulation. This insulation is so effective at trapping air that young sea otter pups are often too buoyant to dive below the surface for their own food, so their mothers carefully tether them to the nearest kelp frond and leave them peacefully bobbing on the surface while lunch is gathered. 

For First Nations people along the Pacific Coast, otter pelts were seen as an elite status symbol. “These were animals that only the chiefs and their hunters were allowed to take,” said Wikkinnish, also known as Cliff Atleo Sr, former president of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribal council. “They were prized in terms of their pelts, and only people of high standing wore them.” The pelts were an ideal material for making waterproof winter clothing or to serve as insulation for dwellings. The Nuu-chah-nulth tribe, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, captured their community’s experiences with otters in the documentary Coastal Voices. This project gathered a diverse group of Indigenous leaders, experts, scientists and artists from British Columbia and Alaska to discuss the historical significance and current impact that sea otters have. 

As Europeans arrived to these coastal waters in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was not long before sea otter pelts were being sold to European elites – an exploitation practice initiated by Russian fur traders further north in Alaska. Within a few decades, the story of the Pacific sea otter would ring similar to those of the Great Plains bison, the muskox, and the beaver. By the time the city of Victoria became the provincial capital in 1871, sea otters had all but disappeared from the waters of British Columbia. 

Humans adapted to this near-extinction. With the otters gone, populations of sea urchins, abalone, clams and crabs exploded, which meant easy access to an abundance of nourishing seafood for humans.

An initiative by the Canadian federal government in the 1960s sought to reintroduce sea otters to the waters around Vancouver Island. A population of sea otters from Alaska’s remote Aleutian Islands were imported (rehomed in advance of a US nuclear test on Amchitka Island), and thrived in BC’s waters. As an endangered species, commercial and personal hunting of sea otters was banned under the Species-At-Risk Act, and their numbers began to grow into the thousands. This was hailed a victory by policymakers and scientists alike.

Photographs by James Thompson

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Issue Fifteen
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_marloe

This feature appears in ISSUE 15: Big little lives of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Fifteen
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_marloe
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_marloe

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