During the late 1700s, the Americans and Europeans were the first people who migrated to the northern Pacific for hunting these animals for pelts. The two states that took the lead in the trade of sea otters were Spain and Russia. During the early 1800s, the Russian and American traders poached California sea Otters in great numbers. Almost 60,000 sea otters were killed by the Americans for the sake of getting fur during the three-year period (1804 – 1807) while another 50,000 furs were taken between 1808 and 1812.
Why are Sea Otters Endangered?
The trade of sea otters was continued until the animals were virtually wiped out. By the year 1840, almost all of the California sea otters were exterminated. The trade was banned in 1910, with signing of the treaty between America, Japan, Russia and Great Britain.
Despite that, the sea otter trade still continues on the black market even today. By the time this treaty was signed, there were as few as 50 otters remaining (before that, there were 15,000 otters) off central California (Bug Sur). But until 1972, these were multiplied to at least 1,000 otters.
Before 1700s, it is estimated that there were about 150,000 to 300,000 sea otters off the North Pacific rim.
Oils spills are perhaps the greatest threat facing sea otters today. The animal suffers from hypothermia as a result of oil spills. As the thick fur of the sea otter is oiled, the animal could no longer keep itself warm enough since, unlike other marine mammals, it does not have any layer of blubber.
As a result, when the sea otter begins grooming itself through scrubbing away its coat, it may inhale oil which may, in turn, cause damage to its lungs or kidneys leading to death.
Besides, during 70s and 80s, a lot of California sea otters were drowned due to their entanglement in fishing gear like trammel and gill nets. The climate change may also unsettle the foraging habits of these animals leading to mortality. Also in recent times, about 280 California sea otters were killed due to infectious disease and parasites.
Read More: How Many Sea Otters are Left in the World?
Why are Sea Otters Hunted?
Sea otters have historically been hunted for their pelts. They have the densest fur in the animal kingdom. In every square inch of its fur, there are around 850,000 to one million hairs. For that reason, they were hunted extensively and their rich pelt was used in fur trade. By the early 1900s, there were just about a dozen colonies of these otters.
Why are Sea Otters Important?
Sea otters have a profound impact on the coastal habitats which is why they are rightly known as keystone species. In particular, they play a vital role in preserving the kelp forests. These forests are one of the most dynamic and richest marine ecosystems in the world, possessing high density of biomass and greater productivity. Because sea otters are greedy urchin-eaters, in so doing, they help in preserving the kelp forests as these forests are continually depleted by the grazing of sea urchins.
What is being done to protect sea otters?
These animals are conserved through the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) in the United States. Under the same act, the harvesting of northern sea otters is now allowed only for the upkeep of the local people in Alaska and it is kept under strict observation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the federal agency. The harvest of these otters is allowed to the native people only for personal uses, craftwork, trading or making clothes for themselves.
It is monitored through a program known as Marking, Tagging and Reporting. Moreover, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) is responsible for the protection of sea otters in California and southwest Alaska. The sea otters in Canada are preserved through Species at Risk Act.
Doroff, A. & Burdin, A. 2015. Enhydra lutris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T7750A21939518. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-2.RLTS.T7750A21939518.en.
Coles, Jeremy. “Conservation success for otters on the brink”. BBC
Tinker, M. Tim, and Brian B. Hartfield. “California Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) Census Results, Spring 2017”.
McPhate, Mike. “California Today: The Plight of the Sea Otter”. The New York Times
“Northern Sea Otter”. Marine Mammal Commission
IUCN Otter Specialist Group
Northern Sea Otter (SW AK popn.) (Enhydra lutris kenyoni). Alaska Department of Fish and Game