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Otters

In the hands of an Aleut, the baidarka was a most efficient craft. It was paddled over the water at what all European navigators later considered an astounding rate,
able to make ten miles an hour. No one but a skilled Aleut who had grown up in a baidarka could manage with any satisfaction the skin-covered shell.

Adele Ogden: The California Sea Otter Trade.

 

Sea Otter

 

Sea Otter

 

It was a Danish sea captain who discovered the economic worth of the Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) while working for a Russian Czar. His ship returned to Russia with 900 Sea Otter pelts, many making their way into the Chinese fur market. The quality
of the sea otter's fur soon made it the most sought after pelt in Chinese trade, each pelt fetching from 80 to 100 rubles, equal to the average annual salary of a laborer working for a fur company in the North Pacific. A year's pay for a single kill – the Fur Rush had begun!

The Trade
The Russian-American Company in a quest for profit, indentured Aleuts for the sole purpose
of hunting sea otters for sale on Chinese markets.

What does this have to do with our bioregion? The company hunted the Santa Barbara Channel and Channel Islands, in the process driving the local otter population to the point of extinction.

Chumash paddlers also hunted the otter, the pelts used for clothing, bed coverings, ceremonial garments and for trade with inland tribes. But although they were skilled hunters the Chumash could not rival the Aleuts in their baidarkas. The Chumash used nets, traps and clubs while the Aleuts used harpoons from nimble kayaks.

 

By the time the Alaskan paddlers reached the Channel Islands however, the Chumash were also being forced to hunt otters for the Spanish.

" The hunters of this ship during her absence had taken 1,600 sea otter skins and were still doing well. Many furs were also obtained from the missions."

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell is a great novel set in this period. It tells the story of a Chumash girl who lived on San Nicolas Island for 18 years.

The Species
The Sea Otter is a member of the weasel family, which includes skunks, minks, sables, ermines, wolverines, and badgers. The smallest of marine mammals, they breathe air, feed milk to their young, are warm blooded, and have hair. Unlike marine mammals that rely on blubber for insulation, the otter has very little body fat, relying instead on thick fur for insulation from the cold water.

As with all insulation, density of the insulating substance blocks out the cold , in this case otter fur. A single square inch of Sea Otter hide might contain up to a million hairs! This makes it the densest fur in the world. By comparison, a human head carries around 100,000 hairs in total.

 

Environmental Conflict
An adult may eat up to 15 pounds of food per day or
a quarter of its weight. This puts them in conflict with local abalone fishermen. The plunder of otters resulted in unprecedented levels of sea urchin and
an increase in abalone, which proved a boon to the fishing industry, but this dichotomy is an ongoing
tale of environmental conflict.

On the environmental side, when sea otters are present, sea urchins will not travel far from cover
to feed. They wait for food to drift to their shelter.
But in the absence of otters the urchins become
more mobile, especially seeking out kelp in our waters. Over time this has had a great impact on
kelp beds, affecting many of the creatures that live
in these ecosystems.

The tussle shows how environmental issues often place the desires of humans against the needs of nature. Finding answers is not always easy, very
often what seems right to some, is wrong to others. The story highlights that stakeholders need to work together to find solutions that provide both necessary protection for the environment, while considering bona fide, reasonable human needs.

Download the educator's background at top for more information and discussion questions.