The Ups and Downs of the Sea Otter
Sea Otters are cute, cuddly creatures with a distinct personality. I’ve had the opportunity to watch them at aquariums and I still swear that I saw one in the wild…but I can’t be sure! I feel that we like them so much because their fur make them look friendly. Unfortunately, some people liked the Sea Otter’s fur so much that they hunted them almost to the point of extinction. Once people realized the plight of the sea otter, ecologists and conservationists banded together to protect the species. Their continued efforts to protect the species is regarded as one of the greatest species recovery stories in modern time.
Sea Otters are found along the West Coast of North America ranging as far south as California to Alaska and even found across the North Pacific in Russia. Before the fur trade began in the 1740s, the population numbers were estimated to be between 150,000 to 300,000 individuals; however, at the lowest point of abundance, Sea Otter population was said to be between 1,000 to 2,000 individuals. Presently, Sea Otter populations are thriving in most areas while other areas the numbers are still low. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) keeps the Sea Otter listed as Threatened.
The Ocean Food Web
Sea Otters are considered an apex predator as they feed on shellfish and urchins, which regulates the prey’s population numbers. The Oceans are all connected by various factors. The obvious factor is water, but another major factor is species. Species feed on each other to survive and this feeding attribute is what connects predators to prey. This connectivity factor is called the Food Web, which identifies who eats who. An apex predator like the Sea Otter can affect the population size of its prey. Their brush with extinction and subsequent recovery is a great story to demonstrate the intricacies of the Food Web.
The Urchin Boom
When the Sea Otter Population was down in the dumps, the urchin population boomed in the North Pacific due to a lack of a predator. It looked as though the Sea Otters were the main predator of the Sea Urchin. Sea Urchins graze of algae and plants, especially kelp. Kelp Forests are an important habitat in the North Pacific. They offer animals hiding spots from small fish and invertebrates and are home to a diverse number of species making it a very stable habitat. Kelp Forests also protect the coastline from erosion by decreasing the wave energy; therefore, stabilizing the coastline in the North Pacific. So when the Sea Urchin population boomed, they turned to eating Kelp and eat is what they did! Sea Urchin grazing caused Kelp Forests to drastically reduce in size decreasing the diversity of species and increasing the vulnerability of the coastline to erosion.
Sea Otters Restoring Things Back To Normal
The recovery of the Sea Otter reversed the process of decreasing Kelp Forest coverage. Sea Otters went back to eating Sea Urchins because the Urchin population was dominating the North Pacific. It has now come to the point where the Sea Urchin population is in check, the Kelp Forests are back, and the shellfish are now being eaten by the Sea Otters…and that is a problem!
Let’s Get Ready To Rumble
There are many Fishermen in the North Pacific that fish for shellfish and they have been enjoying a large catch during the time the Sea Otter population was depressed. Now, Fishermen and Sea Otters are competing for the same source…shellfish and it looks as though the Sea Otters are winning! So it makes sense that the Fishermen are not happy their catch and their money are not what it was like in the past. So now what? What can be done to benefit both sides?
There are some efforts to help both side, but are they effective. One effort is a Sea Otter exclusion zone. Traps are set within this zone to catch any Sea Otter that wanders into it and the US Fishery and Wildlife will relocate the animals somewhere else. US Fisheries and Wildlife are trying to eliminate these zones and I can see why. It must cost a ton of money to monitor the area for Sea Otters. On an ethical basis, is it really cool to exclude wildlife from an area of the Ocean? I’m not so sure. Another effort is in Alaska involves hunting Sea Otters to keep their population in check…I can’t see that lasting too long.
What do you think should be done in this situation to make both parties happy?