Canada's Sea Otters Need Oil Spill Response Plan

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, January 17, 2003 (ENS) - The Canadian government is moving ahead with a strategy for the recovery of sea otters in the waters of British Columbia, under the requirements of the newly enacted Species at Risk Act.

Since 1996, sea otters in British Columbia have been classified as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. This designation, under the Species at Risk Act, requires that a recovery strategy and an action plan be developed and approved. Experts estimate there is a minimum of 2,500 otters living along the Pacific coast.

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Sea otter in B.C. waters (Photo courtesy Natural Resources Canada)
In June 2002, a Recovery Team was formed to develop a National Recovery Strategy for sea otters in British Columbia. The draft strategy document the team produced in December will form the basis for public comment in two workshops, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) said on Wednesday. The agency said it is committed to consulting with First Nations, stakeholders and the public, and to conducting a "transparent, accountable and inclusive consultation process."

The hundreds of oil tankers that travel the coast pose the greatest danger to the small B.C. otter population. "Oil is the single most serious threat to sea otter populations," the DFO says in its strategy document.

The Recovery Team said the best protection for B.C. sea otters would be the creation of an oil spill response plan specifically for sea otters. "It should include detailed response procedures and identify equipment, training, personnel and facilities required. Ensure a readiness of sufficient funds, equipment and personnel to carry out the oil spill response plan," the strategy document recommends.

Oil is so damaging because sea otters depend upon their fur for insulation, and oil destroys the water-repellent nature of the fur. Once the fur is oiled, the otters ingest oil as they groom themselves, which damages internal organs.

Sea otters prey upon benthic invertebrates, which can accumulate and store toxic hydrocarbons, during and after an oil spill, the DFO says.

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Otter about to dine on a sea urchin (Photo courtesy USGS)
Sea otters are nearshore animals that keep coming back to the same sites repeatedly, so they will remain in or return to oiled areas.

In British Columbia, rocky shorelines and reefs in exposed coastal areas are typical sea otter habitat.

Specific kelp beds are used as rafting sites for groups of otters, as well as for individuals. They rest in the kelp beds, which collect and retain oil.

And because large numbers of male and female otters congregate in same sex groups, if oil fouls the B.C. coast, it could damage the reproductive potential of an entire population.

Other threats to sea otter survival are "disease and parasites, contaminants, entanglement in fishing gear, illegal killing and, potentially low genetic diversity," the DFO draft recovery strategy states.

The Recovery Team said there is a need to establish a target population size and distribution along the British Columbia coast that would be sufficient to ensure recovery of the species even in the event of a spill or some other catastrophic event that killed a portion of the otter population.

These targets are unknown and efforts to fill this knowledge gap were considered crucial by the team.

The DFO will hold public workshops this month to consult on the content of a draft National Recovery Strategy for B.C. Sea Otters. The first two meetings will take place on January 21 at the Queen Charlotte City Community Hall in the northern islands known as Haida Gwaii, and on January 25 at the Echo Centre in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. Workshop participants will be able to discuss socio-economic considerations and community perspectives on otter recovery.

Pacific coastal sea otters were designated as endangered in April 1978. Their status was re-examined and confirmed endangered in April 1986. The otters' status was re-examined again in April 1996 and downlisted to threatened. New listing criteria were applied to existing to the 1996 assessment and their status was confirmed as threatened in May 2000.

In its December 2002 draft National Recovery Strategy, the DFO gave a history of sea otters on the Pacific coast.

"Sea otters once ranged from Northern Japan to central Baja California, but were hunted almost to extinction during the European fur trade in the 1700s and 1800s. As few as 2000 animals, less than three percent of the pre-fur trade population are thought to have remained in 13 remnant populations by 1911. In British Columbia, the last sea otter was shot in Kyuquot in 1929."

To recover the species, between 1969 and 1972, 89 sea otters from Amchitka and Prince William Sound, Alaska were released in Checleset Bay on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Today, the British Columbia sea otter population includes a minimum of 2,000 animals along the west coast of Vancouver Island and 500 animals on the central British Columbia coast, the DFO estimates.

The results of the workshop discussions will be "considered," said the DFO, in the recovery strategy which is scheduled to be finalized by the end of March. It will eventually be posted on a public registry for comments from Canadians.

View the draft document and contribute comments by clicking here.