The sea-otter trade precipitated an environmental catastrophe, the first to afflict the coast in the post-contact era. Before the arrival of Europeans, First Nations people hunted the sea otter, both for meat and to obtain the luxurious pelts which the people fashioned into warm clothing. But this subsistence hunt had little impact on the otter population. It was the arrival of British and American merchant traders, with their unquenchable demand for furs, that led to the animal’s rapid annihilation.
Sea otters are relatively easy to hunt. They live almost their entire lives in the water along the outer coast, diving to the bottom to forage for the sea urchins, shellfish, sea stars and other invertebrates that form the bulk of their diet. Not very skittish to begin with, they like to congregate in groups, known as rafts, making it convenient for hunters to kill several animals at a time. Females give birth to one pup at a time and not always annually, meaning that the animal has a slow rate of reproduction. Mothers are fiercely protective of their young, whom they will not abandon, not even to save their own lives, and without their mothers the young animals are quite helpless. Furthermore, it is the females who have the finest fur and so were the preferred prey for hunters.
For all these reasons, the fur trade led to the near extermination of the sea otter. Estimates put their numbers at between 150,000 and 300,000 animals around the north Pacific basin before the hunt began. Within fifteen years of the beginning of the trade, captains were complaining that otter were becoming difficult to obtain on the coast. From a peak of over 20,000 furs in the mid-1790s, the annual take fell to fewer than 400 by 1830, and vessels engaged in the trade were taking a variety of other goods to make their cargoes.
The disappearance of the sea otter had a ripple effect on the ecology of the Northwest Coast. Otters must eat a quarter of their own body weight every day to survive. They are voracious consumers of sea life, especially spiny sea urchins and abalone. Once the otter was gone, these other creatures were able to flourish. Sea urchins feed mainly on kelp, so that as their numbers increased they laid waste to the dense forests of kelp that provide a congenial habitat for a wide variety of marine life. As some species flourished, others declined. It was a complex process; all we can say for certain is that, because of the sea otter hunt, the ocean was a different place when the first Europeans began settling the coast than it had been prior to contact.
It is only since the late 1960s that sea otter have returned. Remnant populations in Alaska were used as the source of animals that were relocated farther south on the coasts of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The BC “migrants”--there were 89 of them--were installed in the Bunsby Islands south of the Brooks Peninsula on the west coast of Vancouver Island between 1969 and 1972. The transplantation was a success, and by the turn of the century there were estimated to be around 2,500 sea otter inhabiting the BC coast.
Next time: The land-based fur trade