03/21/2013 05:18 EDT | Updated 05/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Hungry Otters Overwhelm BC Shellfish Fisheries, First Nations

portugal sea otter
VANCOUVER - How many otters is too many?

In the early 1900's, these adorable-but-ferocious predators were hunted to near extinction for their luxurious fur.

With continual conservation efforts, the sea otter population is growing, and along with it the marine mammal's appetite for shellfish.

First Nations and other shellfish harvesters say the sea otter's rebound is hurting their bottom line.

But the population evidence is anecdotal, so Simon Fraser University assistant Prof. Anne Salomon will be spending the next three years trying to uncover their impact.

Salomon has worked with sea otters for 12 years, and describes them as cute and cuddly from far away, but up close "they're as big as a German shepherd with very big teeth."

Salomon has received a $150,000 fellowship — the Pew Fellowship — that will allow her to study how human interference on marine life is changing food chains along the coast of B.C. and Alaska.

She will be working closely with First Nations communities in her research, gathering traditional knowledge and oral histories along with scientific research in an attempt to figure out what is "normal" for the otter population, based on the level before they were hunted for their fur.

"The big question is, really, what is the baseline that we should be recovering these sea otters to," said Salomon.

She said the sea otter is in direct competition for shellfish with harvesters and conflicts are emerging.

"They're only going to arise even more as these very cute, but very effective, predators expand along our coastline."

Sea otters have huge molars and need to eat a lot because of their lack of body insulation and high activity, she explained, so they crunch shellfish quickly and efficiently.

Roberta Stevenson, executive director of the BC Shellfish Grower's Association, said otters are hard on wild shellfish populations.

Stevenson said she knows divers who have gone for geoducks, only to find empty beds, cratered like a moonscape because the otters got there first.

"The sea otter is a protected species by DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada), and it shouldn't be," said Stevenson.

"If you ever go out on the West Coast, as far as the eye can see they're rafting up on the kelp beds. There are tons of them."

Salomon said kelp beds increase as sea otters do.

This is because otters eat creatures that normally dine on kelp such as sea urchins.

These lush kelp beds are beneficial, she said, because they create a habitat for creatures like rockfish and siphon carbon from the atmosphere, controlling carbon emissions.

According to Salomon, it is the contrasts in positive and negative impacts like this that creates stark differences in people's interests.

"I've been told by one of my collaborators — Barb Wilson — who's a Haida Matriarch, that in the past the Haida used to control the sea otter population by hunting male sea otters," she said.

"It's a really contentious and a tricky issue, because a lot of people do not like the idea of killing sea otters. Especially since they were once listed as an endangered species."

Salomon said there is evidence showing the current population of sea otters may be just a third of what it once was, but no one is currently sure of the "right" number. She is hoping her sea otter research will ultimately spark a debate and affect change.

"Sea otters are one kind of catalyzer — or vehicle, if you will — to spark a debate in British Columbia that's happening right now in our coastal marine planning," she said.

"This brings into focus some of the main issues that these processes are going to have to deal with. ... And those are issues of First Nations entitlement to resources and desired objectives of what we want from our coastal ecosystems."

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