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Why are Sea Otters at risk?

Prior to decimation by the fur trade,
Sea Otters were found in a great arc
around the North Pacific: from
northern Japan via the coastlines of
the Kuril Islands, Kamchatka, Commander
and Aleutian Islands, Gulf of
Alaska, British Columbia, Washington,
Oregon and California, south to the
vicinity of Cedros Island, Mexico.
Native people harvested Sea Otters
throughout their range, but this was unlikely
to have seriously reduced any
populations. However, a 150-year
period of ruthless exploitation began
with Vitus Bering’s exploration of the
Aleutians and Gulf of Alaska in 1741.
The journals of such explorers, and the
luxuriant pelts they brought back,
revealed to the world the commercial
potential of this far-flung resource. The
ensuing maritime fur trade, with
China and Europe the major markets,
resulted in fierce competition
between Russian, American,
British, and Spanish traders, and
sparked numerous territorial disputes.
One of these, the “Nootka
Controversy,” brought threats of
war between Britain and Spain.
Prior to exploitation, the
worldwide population of Sea
Otters was estimated at between
150 000 and 300 000. During 126 years
of Russian control, more than 800 000
are believed to have been taken in
Alaska alone. Hundreds of thousands
were also obtained along the Alaska to
California coastline. By 1911, when a
treaty to protect fur seals and Sea Otters
was signed by Japan, Russia, Britain (for
Canada) and the United States, between
1000 and 2000 Sea Otters remained in a
dozen scattered locations from the Kuril
Islands, Russia, to Prince William
Sound, Alaska, and at one site near
Carmel, California. The last Canadian
record was a specimen obtained near
Kyuquot on Vancouver Island in 1929.
Following protection, the remnant
Sea Otter populations increased gradually.
An estimated 150 000 or more now
occupy most of their original range
from the Kuril Islands to Prince William
Sound, and the isolated remnant in
California has increased to about 2000.
Like most marine mammals, Sea
Otters have low reproductive rates.
However, many new populations in formerly
vacant habitats have increased
steadily at rates as high as 17 to 20 percent
per year, indicating that in areas
where populations have not reached the
limits of their habitat, natural mortality
levels must also be quite low. In areas
where populations have reached maximum
densities, such as Amchitka Island
in Alaska, starvation is probably the
most common cause of death. Mortality
also occurs due to excessively worn
teeth, which may be accompanied by
disease, parasitism,
or infection.
Severe, prolonged
storms can also
cause death of
pups, aged, or
weak individuals.
At Amchitka Island,
nesting Bald
Eagles regularly
prey on Sea Otter
pups left untended on the ocean surface.
This may also happen in other areas.
There are reports of predation by Killer
Whales, sharks and sea lions.
Human-caused mortality, though
much reduced since the early 1900s, is
still a cause for concern. [1] The Exxon
Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound,
Alaska, in 1989 wiped out nearly half of
the Sea Otters in the oiled area of the
Sound; the much smaller Nestucca spill
off Washington in 1988 killed at least
one otter at Checleset Bay, 440 kilometres
north of the spill site. Small
amounts of oil, by affecting insulation,
can cause hypothermia for Sea Otters,
and any major spill, an ongoing threat
on the B.C. coast, could be catastrophic.

Entanglement in fishing nets may cause
significant losses in some parts of their
range. Shooting, harassment and general
disturbance by boat traffic are of
common concern in California where
large numbers of people live in close
proximity to these animals.

What is their status? 

[2] Following reintroduction, (see What
can we do?), the Sea Otter population
in Canada has increased to about 900
animals and has been growing at a
rate of 17 to 20 percent per year. The Sea
Otter has been assigned Endangered
status by the Committee on the Status of
Endangered Wildlife in Canada
(COSEWIC), and receives legal protection
as a marine mammal under the
Canada Fisheries Act. It has been placed
on British Columbia’s Red List and has
been legally designated as an Endangered
Species under the Wildlife Act.
Throughout their range in the U.S.,
Sea Otters receive protection under the
Marine Mammals Protection Act. The
California population, a separate subspecies
(variety) named the “Southern
Sea Otter,” is afforded additional Federal
protection as a Threatened Species
under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

What do they look like?

Two species of otters occur in British
Columbia – the Sea Otter and the
more widespread River Otter. River
Otters frequent rivers and lakes, but
are also common in saltwater along the
entire British Columbia coast. An otter
in the sea is usually not a Sea Otter! 
[3] The Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) is our
smallest marine mammal, but is one of
the largest of the world’s 13 otter species
– males weigh up to 45 kilograms and
reach 148 centimetres in length. Females
are slightly smaller. The tail is about one-third the length of head and
body; the River Otter’s is about two thirds.
Sea Otters are frequently seen in
large social groups, resting or feeding on
their backs in offshore kelp beds. They
rarely go ashore, but when they do, they
choose remote offshore reefs or bars.
River Otters seldom occur in groups
larger than a single family (although
families can include three or four
young), don’t rest on their backs, and
come ashore frequently. 
[4] Sea Otter fur, consisting of sparse
guard hairs and dense, soft underfur,
varies from dark brown to reddish
brown. When dry, the fur on the head is
cinnamon to light brown. The body is
entirely furred except for the tip of the
nose, inside of the ears, and palms of the
stubby mitten-like forefeet. The flipperlike
hindfeet have short, sparse fur.
Prominent whiskers, and the grizzled
facial fur of older animals have
given rise to the nickname “old
man of the sea.”
Groups of the sociable Sea Otter
are called rafts, and usually
consist entirely of females and
pups or of males. Male rafts are
usually larger (up to 100 or more
in Alaska); but female rafts may
contain up to 40 adults with their
pups. Most individuals make
short daily movements between favourite
feeding sites and more protected
resting areas, resulting in seasonal home ranges of 5 to 10 square kilometres in
size. However, studies in Alaska and
California have shown that many adult
males make yearly or more frequent
trips of 80 to 145 km from male rafts to
establish temporary breeding territories
in female areas.

What makes them unique? 

In contrast to whales and seals, which
rely on their blubber for insulation,
the Sea Otter relies on its wellgroomed
fur with many tiny air
bubbles trapped in it. They have the
thickest fur of any living animal, with an
incredible 100 000 or more hairs per
square centimetre. Frequent grooming
activity prevents soiling of the fur, loss
of insulation, and reduced buoyancy.
The fur is rubbed meticulously with
front and hind feet, the flexible otter
rolling inside its baggy skin to reach the
awkward parts. Folds of skin are
squeezed between the forepaws or with
the tongue to remove moisture. Finally
the fur is aerated by blowing into it
or churning the water to a froth with
the paws.
[5] To maintain body heat in chilly
north Pacific waters, Sea Otters have a
metabolic rate two or three times that of
land mammals of similar size. This is
made possible by a prodigious food intake
(25 to 30 percent of body weight
each day), an intestine 10 times the body
length, and a rapid digestive rate.
 [6] Air in
the fur, together
with large lungs
(an adaptation for
diving) cause Sea
Otters to float high
in the water. Other
adaptations for
diving include
blood with a very
high capacity to
transport oxygen,
and ear canals which can be closed. The
Sea Otter has large, complex kidneys
which allow it to drink seawater. 
[7] Sea Otters walk awkwardly on land and
even in water do not have the speed or
agility of seals. When lying face-up they
move slowly by sculling the tail or paddling
with one or both hindlimbs. Faster
movements are always belly-down and
involve up and down undulations of the
entire body (“porpoising”) with the
hindfeet and tail held stiffly
as an extension of the body, and
the forefeet held against the chest.
Normal speeds are 1 to 5 km an hour;
the maximum about 9 km an hour.
When at rest, Sea Otters lie on their
backs, usually entwined in kelp to hold
their position, feet held high in the air
to prevent heat loss.
Most of a Sea Otter’s day is spent
feeding, grooming, or resting, usually in
that order. Otters in Washington and
British Columbia, where populations
are small and food is abundant, may
spend as little as 10 or 15 percent of their
day feeding, compared to 50 or 60 percent
at Amchitka Island, where otter
numbers are high and readily available
foods have been exhausted. Most daytime
foraging activity occurs in the
morning and late afternoon, most resting
around midday.
The near extinction and subsequent
increase of Sea Otters has allowed researchers
to study their effects on
benthic (seabottom) plant and animal
communities as they recolonized
or were transplanted
into vacant
Many areas that
were otter-free
for decades, particularly
and reefs, have
dense populations
of sea urchins and little or no kelp
(large algae), this having been eaten by
the grazing urchins. These areas are
described as “sea urchin barrens.”
Research at Checleset Bay, Vancouver
Island, and elsewhere has shown that
introduced Sea Otters greatly reduce the
urchin populations, allowing extensive
stands of kelp to develop. These “kelp
forests” drastically change the reef environment,
provide habitat for fish such
as perch, greenling, and lingcod, and
moderate the effect of waves. Their foraging
has thus had a profound influence
on nearshore reef communities.

How do they reproduce? 

[8] Females breed at four years old and
have one pup every one to two years.
Males mature at five or six years but
may not breed until somewhat older.
Although young may be born at any
time of year, most births occur in spring
or early summer. Most mating in northern
waters is in the fall. The estimated
gestation period is 6W to 9 months.
Spring or early summer births
may result in better survival than
births at other seasons.
Few births have been seen, but
most are thought to occur in the
water (unlike River Otters, seals
and sea lions, which usually give
birth on land). At birth the single
pup weighs 1.4 to 2.3 kg and is well
furred but relatively helpless. Pups receive
a lot of maternal care and training
until almost adult size, a period of six to
eight months or more. Small pups
suckle while lying on the female’s chest;
when larger they nurse while lying
beside her in the water. Females with
small pups tend to be solitary and to act
aggressively toward other otters.
Females leave pups on the surface
when they dive for food. They share
solid food with the pups shortly after
birth, but larger pups aggressively take
food from their mothers. The young begin
to dive in their second month;
the duration of dives and success in
finding food increases with age. There
is much to learn during the period of

What do they eat? 

[9] Sea Otters dive to the seafloor to obtain
a variety of invertebrate animals.
The most common prey of Sea
Otters are sea urchins, mussels,
abalone, clams, scallops, crabs, sea
snails, chitons, octopus, and squid.
 [10] An
acute sense of touch, using paws, nose,
and whiskers, is very important for finding
prey in crevices or bottom
sediments, and during dim light. Food
items are normally clasped between
tough leathery pads of the two forepaws
and brought to the surface to eat. Several
food items are often stored in a
loose pocket of skin in the armpit area
for transportation and while feeding.
The ingenious Sea Otter uses rocks as
tools to break open hard-shelled prey or
to dislodge prey such as abalone. It is the
only mammal other than the primates (monkeys, apes, humans) known to use
tools. While eating, Sea Otters float on
their backs, using their chest as a dinner
table, and are often accompanied by
gulls and small fish which scavenge on
leftovers. Items such as crabs and
urchins are broken open with paws
and teeth; the teeth are modified for
crushing hard foods. Hard-shelled
mussels and clams are bashed repeatedly
against a stone on the otter’s chest.
Their rock tools range from 6 to 15 cm
across, and favourite rocks may be
carried in the armpit pouch on several
successive dives.
Most foraging is at depths under 30
metres, but a dive to 100 m has been
recorded. Research on the west coast of
Island found
that food
dives varied
from 45 to
127 seconds,
the longest
interval between
dives was 180 seconds, and individuals
may spend up to two hours diving for
one kind of food.
Where do they live? 

[11] Sea Otters need unpolluted nearshore
marine habitats, usually having
depths under 40 m, an abundant
food supply consisting primarily of
shellfish, and freedom from excessive
human disturbance. Complex coastlines
having many islands, reefs, bays,
and points provide a variety of feeding
sites and shelter from storms, and appear
to support the highest numbers of
otters. Habitats of this nature occur
along most of the outer coast of British
Columbia. The reintroduced British
Columbia population, possibly with
the help of animals from northern
Washington and southeast Alaska,
may eventually expand their range
into this vacant habitat.
B.C.’s deep, steep-sided fjords may
have little to offer Sea Otters in terms of
food, and provide little protection from
strong outflow winds. Georgia Strait
may be unsuitable due to high summer
water temperatures, particularly in its
shallow nearshore waters, or because of
pollution and human disturbance.

What can we do?

Sea Otters were reintroduced to Canadian
waters between 1969 and
1972. This was a cooperative effort
involving BC Environment (Fish
and Wildlife Branch), Fisheries and
Oceans Canada (Pacific Biological Station),
Canadian Armed Forces (Search
and Rescue, Comox), U.S. Bureau of
Sport Fisheries and Wildlife,
Alaska Fish and Game Department,
and U.S. Atomic Energy
Commission. There were three
releases totalling 89 Sea Otters
(taken from Amchitka Island and
Prince William Sound) at the
Bunsby Islands in Checleset Bay,
on Vancouver Island, during this
time. This nucleus has grown to over
900, distributed from Nootka Sound to
Quatsino Sound, and is increasing.
An Ecological Reserve covering all of
Checleset Bay (the Sea Otter release site)
was established by BC Parks in 1981,
and harvest closures on many key shellfish
eaten by the otters (clams, sea urchins,
abalone) have been instituted in
the reserve by the Department of Fisheries
and Oceans Canada (DFO). Periodic
aerial surveys are
undertaken by BC
Environment, BC
Parks, and DFO.
Two status reports
have been
prepared and recovery
and management
plans are
in preparation.
BC Parks controls
activities in
Royal B.C. Museum photo
Checleset Bay by issuing research, educational,
and other permits. Research
has been undertaken there on effects of
Sea Otters on marine communities.
Once extinct on our coast, Sea Otters
are now expanding to reoccupy their
former habitats and to resume their
role in the ecology of B.C.’s coastal ecosystems.
Expansion to new areas will
also provide increased opportunities
for the public to view this engaging
animal in the wild. The outlook for
B.C.’s Sea Otter is good, although
present populations are still relatively
small and vulnerable. The public is
urged to support programs aimed at
preserving this valuable member of our
coastal fauna.

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