When Captain James Cook “discovered” Vancouver Island and the Nuu-chan-nulth people in 1778, he also discovered sea otters and their fantastically valuable fur.
The ensuing Maritime Fur Trade drove B.C. otter populations to extinction, only to return when nuclear bomb testing in Alaska in the late 1960s prompted a series of relocations.
More than 200 years after Cook’s discovery, the drama he initiated continues to unfold.
On the west coast of Vancouver Island sea otters grew rapidly — they just re-populated the famous Clayoquot Sound around Tofino.
But not everyone is happy to see them.
Otters eat many different kinds of shellfish, which — in the 150-year absence of otters — became economic and cultural mainstays of coastal communities. For shellfish fishermen, otters are weasel-like pests eating their livelihoods.
At the same time, by eating plant-eating sea urchins, otters may be providing a great service to people. Without sea otters, urchin populations exploded and clear-cut vast expanses of undersea kelp forests.
And kelps are crucial to coastal ecosystems: they provide habitat and food for many species, supporting diverse food webs that include herring, rockfish, lingcod, salmon, eagles and seabirds.
Change can be difficult. Although sea otters are protected by Canada’s Species At Risk Act, some people are harassing and killing them.
But change is also an opportunity, here to restore a natural ecosystem and to create new economies. Plan a trip to the west coast of Vancouver Island to visit our coastal communities and see first hand these charismatic predators and the marine ecosystems they are transforming. While you’re there, please be respectful — of otters and fishermen.
• Sea otters are the only marine mammals without blubber. Instead, they keep warm by having a very high metabolism — they consume approximately 25 per cent of their body weight, daily.
• The spectacularly dense fur for which otters were hunted is also an adaptation for staying warm — by impregnating with air otters create dry suits for themselves.
• Approximately 50 otters were reintroduced near Kyuquot in early 1970s. Today about 3,000 animals range between Tofino and northern Vancouver Island.
– Kai Chan is an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability (IRES) at UBC; firstname.lastname@example.org.