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Recovery Strategy for the Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) in Canada

Executive Summary

Sea otters ranged once from Northern Japan to central Baja California, but were hunted almost to extinction during the Maritime fur trade that began in the mid 1700s. As few as 2,000 animals, little more than 1% of the pre-fur trade population, are thought to have remained in 13 remnant populations by 1911. The last verified sea otter in Canada was shot near Kyuquot, British Columbia (BC), in 1929. Between 1969 and 1972, 89 sea otters from Amchitka and Prince William Sound, Alaska, were translocated to Checleset Bay on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Recent population surveys (2001 to 2004) indicate the Canadian sea otter population includes a minimum of 2,700 animals along the west coast of Vancouver Island and 500 animals on the central BC coast. Sea otters are legally listed as Threatened under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) but have recently been reassessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as Special Concern as they have re-populated 25-33% of their historic range and the population is growing and expanding. However, the population is still considered small (<3500) and their susceptibility to oil and the proximity to major oil tanker routes make them particularly vulnerable to oil spills(COSEWIC 2007).

Oil spills remain the most significant threat because of the population’s distribution and the species’ inherent vulnerability to oil. The need to protect sea otters and their habitat was identified. However, there is also a need to clarify the significance of additional threats such as disease, contaminants, entanglement in fishing gear, and illegal killing, as these have been implicated in declines in sea otter populations elsewhere.

The goal for recovery of sea otters is to see that the sea otter population is sufficiently large and adequately distributed so that threats, including events catastrophic to the species, such as oil spills, would be unlikely to cause extirpation or diminish the population such that recovery to pre-event numbers would be very slow.

The population and distribution objectives for at least the next five years to measure progress towards reaching the goal are:

  1. To observe that the geographic range of sea otters in coastal BC continues to expand naturally beyond the 2004 continuous range in order to be able to survive events catastrophic to the species, such as oil spills, and be able to rebound demographically within a relatively short period of time to pre-catastrophe numbers; and
  2. To observe that the number of sea otters (compared to 2004) correspondingly continues to increase in order for the geographic range to expand.

In addition, a recovery objective was set to identify and, where possible, mitigate threats to sea otters and their habitat to provide for recovery of the population.

To achieve the goal, the recovery strategy adopts a non-intrusive approach that recognizes the sea otter’s ability to rebound but at the same time considers that threats could limit or even reverse the current population trend if not addressed. The approach focuses on identifying and reducing threats to sea otters and their habitat that could impede recovery.  Strategies that are recommended to address threats and effect recovery are:  research to clarify threats; population assessment (surveys); protection from oil spills and other threats; and communication to support recovery.

Critical habitat for sea otters has not been identified.  Certain wintering habitats may be the most critical to sea otters’ survival and recovery. A schedule of studies towards identifying critical habitat has been included. 

One or more action plans, which provide the specific details for recovery implementation, will be completed within six years of completion of the recovery strategy.