Tofino Wildlife: Clayoquot Furballs - Sea Otters
by Dan Lewis, Tofino
In 1969 the US government began planning the largest underground nuclear
test in us history, on Amchitka Island in Alaska. To mitigate effects
of the planned blast, 89 Alaskan sea otters were transplanted to Kyuquot,
near the north end of Vancouver Island between 1969 and 1971.
In Vancouver, opposition to the test led to the formation of the
Make a Wave Committee, which went on to become Greenpeace, and an international
campaign to end nuclear tests.
Meanwhile, back in Kyuquot, the relocated otters were having a field
day eating all the sea urchins, and they began to migrate north and
south from there. By 1998 they were appearing in the north end of
“Fur balls”, as they are affectionately called by the whale
watchers, are now back in southern Clayoquot. This spring a raft of
63 sea otters was sighted in Cow Bay and we had regular sightings all
summer around Vargas Island.
Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) look very different from river otters—their
furry white faces clearly set them apart. Sea otters are marine mammals
and rarely come out of the water. Their large rear feet are like flippers.
Their fur is thick and waterproof, to insulate them from the cold water.
They don’t have a blubber layer like most other marine mammals,
so they have to eat one quarter of their body weight daily to stay
warm. Adults can measure as large as 1.5 metres and weigh up to 45
Their habitat is shallow water close to shore, typically a rocky
area on the open coast with kelp beds nearby. During a five minute
dive they forage for urchins, crabs, mussels, and clams. Any food they
find is stashed under pockets of skin near their forearms. When they
return to the surface they float on their backs eating their feast
of seafood at their leisure, sometimes using rocks to smash shells
Sea otters were hunted to extinction during the 1800’s. It all
began with a Russian shipwreck in the Aleutian islands. Biologist Georg
Wilhelm Steller was on board and began hunting the otters. The Russians
discovered otters have incredibly thick furs—a million hairs
per square inch!
Russian fur traders returned to the Aleutians and forced the natives
to hunt sea otters from their kayaks, which the Russians called baidarkas.
A village’s women and children were captured, and if the men
wanted to see them alive again, they did as the Russians ordered.
When Captain Cook arrived in Nootka Sound in 1778, there were still
plenty of sea otters around. The British didn’t realize the value
of the pelts they obtained until they arrived in China, where traders
would pay outrageous prices for the furs. The otter fur trade had arrived
on Vancouver Island. Otters were commercially extinct by the early
1900’s, and the few remaining were protected in 1911 under the
International Fur Seal Treaty signed by the United States, Russia,
Japan and Great Britain (for Canada).
Otters are known as a ‘keystone’ species, because of the
key role they play in the ecosystem. When otters are removed from the
food web, sea urchin populations explode. Urchins graze on kelp, so
the kelp forests are decimated. Kelp provides a nursery for finfish
to feed, rest, and hide from predators, so the entire ecosystem is
In Kyuquot, when the otters returned, they fed voraciously on the
artificially abundant urchins and their population grew at an average
of nearly 20% annually. As they reached the carrying capacity of the
ecosystem, they spread to new territories.
Some people are concerned about the return of the otters to Clayoquot
Sound. Commercial harvesters of crab and geoducks are concerned they
may have nothing left to catch. And First Nations people use shellfish
as a staple food to feed their families.
Scientists believe an equilibrium will be established between otters
and the rest of the ecosystem. Kyuquot has shown that this process
will occur over a period of about 35 years. But the question local
communities are asking is can we wait 35 years for the beneficial
effects of the re-establishment?
And yet, with the kelp forests in such a poor state, and major unknowns
such as global warming on the horizon, a healthy population could
be beneficial. In the short term there will be a reduction in urchins
and clams, but in the long run, with the return of the kelp forests,
there should be a healthy, intact, functioning ecosystem with otters
playing their key role once again.
Dan Lewis and Bonny Glambeck operate Rainforest Kayak Adventures,
a sea kayak company in Tofino. For info visit their website at www.rainforestkayak.com