Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Curious Otter

Last Monday I was checking out a large landslide complex on the west shore of the Toandos Peninsula on the shore of Dabob Bay. This was a big slide with most of the steep shoreline bluff failing over a distance of nearly one quarter of a mile. The slide took place in 1998. A month ago I observed a new scarp above the landslide area indicating that the 1998 failure may have caused a very old, large landslide to reactivate. The slide deposit has been eroded back but the presence of logs in the slide debris has slowed the rate of erosion and the failed soil is now covered with red alder. Alders are often the first trees to pioneer disturbed soil and later will get shaded out by evergreens if enough time goes by.

During my walk along the shore I was followed by an otter. There are two otters in our waters: the river otter and the sea otter. River otters are relatively common and the term river causes confusion as these otters are found in all waters. They are also much more common than sea otters and I see them fairly often in various water settings. This otter was very curious about me and followed me a long the shore for about 5 minutes.

Sea otters were nearly hunted to extinction during the 1700s through 1800s. The presence of sea otters along the coast played a big role in the early exploration and settlement of the Washington coast. Sea otter pelts were very lucrative. The pelts were purchased from Indian tribes along the coast, sold in China and then trade goods purchased in China were brought to England. In 1794 the Jenny sailing out of Bristol returned 2,400% on the voyage investment (Bill Gulick, 2005) by trading for sea otter pelts. Unlike other marine mammals sea otters rely on their fur to stay warm and hence have very thick pelts with up to 600,000 hairs per square inch. Hence the furs were highly prized. The sea otter fur trade was well underway before the Alexander Mackenzie and later Lewis and Clark crossed the North American Continent.

The sea otter trade completely changed the political and economic conditions on the Pacific coast. It was a gold rush with a violent history but could not last as the otters were killed off. Initially the otters were shot or trapped by Indians and then sold. By the mid 1800s only the shyest and least accessible sea otter populations remained. One area where a population hung on longer was the kelp beds off of Ocean City, Washington. With the advent of long range, accurate repeating rifles shooting platforms were built out in the kelp beds and the last slaughters began coinciding with the near extinction of the buffalo. A sharp shooter would shoot the otters from hundreds of yards and then a collector would paddle to the otter to collect the skin. The last two otters shot near Ocean City reported fetched $1,400 and $600 in 1906 (Van Syckle, 1982). Sea otters from Alaska were reintroduced to the north Olympic Peninsula Pacific coast in 1969 and 1970 and the population has been slowly recovering with occasional reports of sea otters as far as the San Juan Islands.

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