Sea Otter Comeback
from the Raincoast Education Society (RES)
About ten years ago, on an island in Barkley Sound (south of Clayoquot
Sound) archaeologists found evidence of a historic village site. It
was on a shoreline that they hadn’t thought to investigate – the
beach was riddled with large boulders and fully exposed to the Pacific.
Elders had told the archaeologists about the once-thriving village,
but the spot seemed so inhospitable. Where were the calm bay and sandy
beach typical of so many village sites? What had happened to change
this shoreline so dramatically? The answer lies in the lifestyle and
ecological impact of the sea otter.
Sea Otters are what ecologists refer to as a keystone predator – their
presence (or absence) markedly affects the structure of an ecosystem.
In the near shore environment, the sea otter is the keystone predator.
Sea otters are the only marine mammals without blubber. To keep warm
in the chilling ocean they have a luxurious fur for which they were
highly prized (and almost hunted to extinction). As well, they keep
their metabolism high by eating up to a quarter of their body weight
a day in crabs, clams, sea urchins, snails and other invertebrates.
When sea otters were removed from our coast during a frenzied rush
for “soft gold” in the 18th and 19th centuries, sea urchins
lost their major predator. Sea urchins then nibbled their way through
vast kelp forests, a habitat that has largely been lost from our coast
As a result, the coast looks quite different than it did 200 years
ago. When sea otters were present, a kelp forest would likely have
fronted the village site mentioned above. The large seaweeds dampened
the waves and created a calm bay making an ideal village site. Without
the otters, the urchins grazed out the kelp, exposing the beach to
the Pacific’s onslaught, which scoured the beach of sand and
left only the boulders that still remain today.
Unlike many stories of near-extinction that could be told, the sea
otter’s is one of promise. After being extirpated on the BC coastline,
89 sea otters from Alaska were reintroduced to Kyuquot Sound on Northern
Vancouver Island from 1969 to 1972. This population – now over
2,000 strong – continues to expand by as much as 19 percent per
year. (Sea otters reappeared in Clayoquot Sound in the late 1990s.)
With this repopulation comes the flourishing of kelp forests, a valuable
habitat for many invertebrate species and an ideal nursery and larder
for fish and other marine mammals.
Today, the biggest challenge for sea otters lies once again in their
relationship with people. Oil spills are deadly as even a small spot
of oil damages the insulative properties of their fur. As well, sea
otters now find themselves in competition for food. In the years
that our coast has been sea otter free, sea urchins, crabs, geoducks,
other clams have become valuable commodities. Fisheries for these
species have developed in the absence of otters. As the sea otters
return to Clayoqout and Barkley Sounds, our challenge now is to find
ways in which to coexist.
Who is the RES?
The Raincoast Education Society (RES) is an independent, local, non-profit
society dedicated to promoting research, education, and informed
discussion about environmental and social sustainability.
The RES maintains the Raincoast Interpretive Centre (RIC) as a
public venue for exhibits, presentations and discussions relating
to the unique marine
and terrestrial ecology and rich cultural heritage of the west coast.
RIC staff develop and deliver a broad range of educational and interpretive
programs focused on the natural environment, cultures, and communities
of the Clayoquot Sound region. Fall programs include the Raincoast
Energy Series and school programs (Sea Otters and Mysterious Mudflats)
and visiting school groups.
For more information call the RIC at 725-2560.
Tofino Nature & Wildlife Articles
Seotters have made a remarkable comeback since reappearing in Clayoquot Sound near Tofino in the late 1990s.