About the sea otter
The smallest marine mammals in North America, sea otters occupy chilly coastal waters in the central and north Pacific Ocean. The animals rely on their dense, soft fur coats for warmth. It's important for otters to keep each individual hair clean otherwise their fur becomes matted and they can die from hypothermia. Sea otters usually swim on their backs on the surface of the water, using their rear flippers to propel themselves and their tails to steer. If the animals become frightened, they flip onto their stomachs and swim away, or dive under the water to escape.
Sea otters mainly eat shellfish and sea urchins, but are also highly adaptable and often eat seasonally available food. Sea otters dive up to 36 metres to find food, with average dives lasting approximately one minute. Otters need to eat 25 percent of their body weight each day to stay alive—meaning a 40-kilogram otter must find and eat 10 kilograms of food daily.
When sea otters find food, they often roll onto their backs and place their meals on their stomachs. Sometimes otters use rocks to help break open the hard shells of sea urchins and other prey. To keep from drifting away on the current while they feast, sea otters use seaweed as an anchor, twisting around and around in the kelp to remain stationary.
Where the sea otter lives
Sea otters favour shallow, coastal waters, seldom ranging more than one or two kilometres from shore. All otters, particularly mothers with pups, seem to prefer areas with kelp canopies, but seaweed is not an essential habitat requirement. Habitat use varies with weather and marine conditions. Otters have been known to move offshore during extended periods of calm, and congregate in sheltered, inshore areas during storms.
Why it's at risk
Between 1979 and 1972, 89 sea otters were successfully reintroduced to British Columbia. By 1995, the population had grown to 1,500. The otters mainly live off Vancouver Island, but can also be seen near Goose Island. Sea otters have also been reintroduced to Washington State and southeastern Alaska.
Major causes of death among sea otters are lack of food and predators. The latter include bald eagles (a significant cause of otter pup death), killer whales and sharks. The greatest threat to the sea otters' survival, however, probably comes from environmental contamination. Oil spills are particularly damaging, as oil coats the animals' fur, destroying the blanket of air that provides warmth and causes death by hypothermia. Commercial fisheries also pose significant danger; many sea otters become caught in fishing nets and drown.
What's being done
The sea otter was protected in 1911 under the International Fur Seal Treaty signed by the United States, Russia, Japan, and Great Britain for Canada. Today, the otter is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). The otter is also protected under the federal Fisheries Act and the British Columbia Wildlife Act.
Development of a recovery strategy under SARA was started in 2002. The strategy's long-term objectives include:
In February 2004, DFO held a series of workshops to gather information from a variety of stakeholders for a sea-otter recovery action plan.
Coastal First Nation communities are also participating in sea otter population assessments and educational activities though the federal Stewardship Program.
Once extinct from Canada, the sea otter has successfully been reintroduced to British Columbia. Subsequent population growth by 1996 enabled COSEWIC to downgrade the species from endangered to threatened.
What can you do?
Sea otters will get the protection they need only if all Canadians work together to reduce threats. Find out more about sea otters and be aware of man-made threats to the animal such as entanglement in fishing nets, water pollution, and oil spills. Do your best to reduce these threats wherever possible to better protect the sea otters habitat. Get involved with the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP) or another conservation organization.