The map above depicts the areas on the west coast of British Columbia where there are relatively high concentrations of Sea Otter populations.
The Sea Otters are in direct competition with fisherman, including first nations, for sea urchins, crabs etc which make up a large portion of the Sea Otters diet. Sea Otters do not have large stores of fat and therefore must eat voraciously in order to maintain their metabolism and protect themselves from the cold. They have an an extremely thick, multi level coat that has over 200,000 hairs per square inch, which they must constantly groom to ensure that it is an effective barrier from the elements.
The question must be addressed, “How did the Sea Otter come into direct competition with man for a food source?”.
In the early 1900’s there were hundreds of thousands of Sea Otters on the coast of British Columbia. These vast numbers kept sea urchin populations in check which in turn ensured that the coastal kelp beds remained plentiful and healthy. Sea Urchins feed on kelp beds. Kelp beds, in this ecosystem, play an integral role in maintaining balance within the system. As the Sea Otter population was decimated from over hunting, the Sea Urchin population exploded which in turn had a devastating effect on the kelp beds. The ecosystem balance was disrupted with widespread impact on coastal marine life.
The Sea Otter population in BC was wiped out completely at one point and the negative effects, as mentioned, continued to multiply. A sea urchin fishery was established and although this helped to manage the explosive growth of sea urchins, their natural predator, the Sea Otter, was noticeably absent from the scene.
Sea Otters have since been reintroduced into British Columbia and have prospered. They continue to do what they have always done- maintain the health and complexity of kelp beds by keeping sea urchin populations etc , in check. They look cute while they are doing it as well. There is a problem that is simmering below the surface, so to speak. The fishery has come to depend on defined levels of sea urchins and these levels will certainly be affected as the numbers of sea otters continue to grow, and their habitat expands.
There are arguments for both sides of the issue, however, until such time that humans come up with a management plan that will benefit all furry and non furry members of the fishery, otters will continue to do what they have always done….dine and dash on a belly full of sea urchins.
Below picture is by Mark Hobson, renowned Canadian wildlife artist: http://www.markhobson.com