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Monique Keiran: Sea otters are a conservation success story

‘Sea otters, bah!” says Nature Boy, with tongue in cheek. “They’re too easy to love. How can you respect a plush toy?” Nature Boy is responding to this year’s reports of sea otters off Langara Island in Haida Gwaii and elsewhere on the coast.

‘Sea otters, bah!” says Nature Boy, with tongue in cheek. “They’re too easy to love. How can you respect a plush toy?”

Nature Boy is responding to this year’s reports of sea otters off Langara Island in Haida Gwaii and elsewhere on the coast. Although still not common in mid-B.C. waters after their 1970s re-introduction, the small marine mammals are slowly repopulating their historic range.

The sea otter’s return is one of Canada’s conservation successes. Confirmed as extirpated by the 1920s, listed as “threatened” in 2002, the sea otter is now considered a “species of concern.”

Nature Boy continues: “Now, the sea urchin — that is a remarkable animal. It has these amazing, intricate round jaws.”

“No match for sea otter jaws,” I interrupt. “Nor is the sea urchin a species at risk. Unlike the sea otter. Or the abalone.”

“Abalone are pretty cool, too,” he admits. “And they taste real good.”

Always a disadvantage. As Paul Theroux, travel writer, author and general grumpus, once wrote (I paraphrase): The epitaphs on the gravestones of many extinct creatures could read, “Mmm, that was tasty.”

The northern, or pinto, abalone is the only marine snail native to B.C., although its range extends from Alaska to the Baja. Demand for its meat and the availability of scuba equipment led to commercial overfishing in the 1970s and ’80s. With populations dropping to just 11 per cent in 1990, the B.C. government closed the entire abalone fishery.

Twenty-three years later, the snail remains “threatened.”

But demand for its meat also remains high. Illegal harvest keeps numbers down and, along with climate change and ocean acidification, poses a serious threat to its survival.

The situation extends beyond B.C. The Center for Biological Diversity, a U.S. research and conservation organization, filed a petition earlier this month to protect the northern abalone in Alaska, California, Washington and Oregon under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, citing poaching as a serious problem.

Nature Boy’s purported preference for mollusks over sea otters parallels that of many B.C. shellfish farmers and fishermen.

Sea otters eat as much as one-third their body weight every day. Their diet consists of sea urchins, abalone, clams, oysters, crab and other shell-y sea creatures. This is a problem for already-stressed abalone populations.

And it’s a problem for the province’s shellfishermen. Just as Atlantic fishermen saw seals as competition for cod stocks in the 1980s, those who work in B.C.’s shellfish industry resent the otter’s predation.

However, it’s becoming clear the mammals are essential to controlling sea urchin populations, and, say researchers, keeping B.C.’s kelp forests healthy. Healthy kelp forests lead to healthy fish populations and increased ocean sequestration of atmospheric C02.

The sea urchin jaws that Nature Boy so admires enable the urchin to feed voraciously on kelp. After humans hunted most sea otters from the region in the 1800s, B.C.’s sea urchin and other shellfish populations exploded. While that permitted abundant shellfish harvest by humans, it also decimated B.C.’s kelp forests.

That, in turn, harmed fish species that rely on those ecosystems.

Now that sea otters have returned, scientists are watching the return of kelp forests and fish species that haven’t been seen much around these parts for more than a century.

Because kelp efficiently sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, the otter-induced recovery of kelp-based ecosystems in these waters also gives us a boost — albeit a very small boost — against climate change and ocean acidification, the other major threats to abalone, and indeed to all shellfish populations.

We’re seeing something remarkable unfold. An entire ecosystem is rebalancing itself and shifting toward a state similar to what existed before Captain James Cook and his fellow Europeans came to the coast and discovered just how rich sea otter pelts, then shellfish, then abalone, could make them.

What’s not to love about that?

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