Friday, January 2, 2015

I Want You To Want Me

Sea Otter
There are few mammals more cuddly and instantly loveable than a sea otter. Not to be confused with the river otter, another member of the same family who are equally at home on land or in the water, the sea otter spends its entire life in the ocean. Unlike other sea mammals which have a layer of blubber to keep them warm, sea otters have to depend on their thick fur coat for their insulation and, at a million hairs per square inch, it's the densest in the animal kingdom.

Raft of sea otters
Of course this luxurious fur immediately caught the eye of European traders and explorers cruising the Pacific northwest coastline in the late 18th century and, within 150 years, they had hunted them to near extinction with a world population of 200,000 or more dropping to less than 2,000 individuals until an international ban on hunting them was implemented in 1911. Sadly in B.C. there were no survivors but 89 Alaskan sea otters were relocated to the west coast of Vancouver Island between 1969-1972 and there is now an estimated population of over 3,000 between Cape Scott and Barkley Sound with another colony of 300 living in the central coast. This should all be good news except when we look a little more closely into the story of Wally, the rescued sea otter now living in the Vancouver Aquarium, who first appeared on the scene in October 2013.

Wally recovering
Wally washed up on shore near Tofino with his body full of shotgun pellets that had left him blinded, broken his teeth and damaged one of his hind flippers so badly it had to be partially amputated. Working around the clock Vancouver Aquarium staff were able to care for him, ease his pain & discomfort and eventually perform the necessary surgeries that have since allowed him to function somewhat normally. He will never be able to look after himself in the wild but he now has some companionship with other rescued sea otters and is in a safe place for the rest of his life.

Wally & Tanu
Sea otters are voracious eaters, consuming 25% or more of their body weight every day to burn the calories necessary to counteract the loss of heat they have to deal with living in a cold water environment. Their diet consists of sea urchins, various bi-valves such as clams, mussels, oysters & abalone as well as crustaceans and other marine invertebrates. How they are able to collect and prepare a meal out of these creatures is what makes the sea otter a very unique mammal.
Sea otter eating a clam for breakfast
The sea otter is the only marine mammal that uses its hands rather than its teeth when foraging for food. It also has a pouch on its chest that it uses for bringing collected food up to the surface and carrying a stone to break open shellfish that it eats while floating on its back. One of the few mammals to use tools, it will go on short dives searching for prey, smashing abalone and oysters off rocks using a stone and catching fish and crabs with its hands.
Sea otter with a crab lunch
The only problem with getting the sea otter re-established in B.C. is that in their absence the shellfish aquaculture industry has been busy setting up shop. The sea otter habitat is perfectly suited for the commercialized farming of shellfish and this has now led to open conflict between the sea otters and the farmers as they compete for seafood. With the average sea otter weighing 60 lbs and eating 25% of its weight every day, that adds up to potentially 45,000 pounds of shellfish a day for the 3,000 sea otters on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Wally's tragic shooting simply illustrates what happens when the interests of these two groups collide.
Shellfish farms around Vancouver Island
However, as much as sea otters love shellfish there's another creature they find just as tasty and one that may hold the key to helping resolve this debate, and that's the sea urchin. Sea otters are often referred to as a keystone species, because of their critical importance to an ecosystem, in this case the kelp forests of the North Pacific. Kelp forests are vital to the survival of a wide variety of fish and other sea life, in addition to absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but they have a nasty predator, the sea urchin, that feed on their lower stems that anchor them to the sea floor, thus cutting them off and causing them to drift away and die.

Sea otter enjoying a sea urchin for dinner
This is where the sea otter comes to the rescue as one of the principal consumers of sea urchins, the other being the wolf eel. Without sea otters and wolf eels the kelp forests can quickly become devastated by sea urchins and the loss of habitat and nutrients provided by kelp forests can have a profound effect on the overall marine environment leaving vast areas completely barren. However, just as in Alaska, the re-introduction of sea otters to British Columbia has led to a dramatic improvement in the health of coastal ecosystems because wherever sea otters live they are able to control the sea urchin population. The more kelp forests we have the better off we all are and the key now is to nourish the development of kelp forests away from shellfish farms so the sea otters can resume their role as natural custodians of the kelp and leave the shellfish farms alone.

On Gabriola Island a group of volunteers under the direction of Michael Mehta, a professor of environmental studies at Thompson Rivers University, have started an innovative campaign to "help the kelp" by mapping and seeding new beds of kelp around the Island. In addition to helping the existing kelp beds improve their canopies, the goal is to develop cost effective and proven techniques that other communities can copy.  It's all part of a greater message that says if we want to be healthy we need our marine ecosystems to be healthy, and there's no better place to start than with kelp.

While obviously Wally was a victim of ignorance, perhaps he and the other rescued sea otters at the Vancouver Aquarium will now become the new ambassadors of marine education. Cuddly is nice but even better is the important role sea otters play in the marine ecosystem. Sea otters mean bigger kelp forests and bigger kelp forests mean even more fish. There's room for both shellfish farmers and sea otters and all Wally, Katmai, and Tanu are trying to say is "I want you to want me".

Katmai, Wally, Tanu

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