Orcas Killing Sea Otters

Orca attacking a sea otter pup in Kasitsna Bay, Alaska.

Hey Folks,

Here’s an interesting thought; there’s been a lot of discussion in Alaska on wolf and other wildlife management, particularly ‘predator management’ (aren’t ALL animals not predators of some creatures, and prey of others?), and this raises the issue of orcas (Orcinus orca) and northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni). In more recent times, for various reasons, it appears that orcas have begun preying more heavily on northern sea otters in the Southwestern part of the otters’ range – South Central Alaska out across the Aleutian Islands. Orcas, “Wolves of the Sea”, appear to be extirpating the sea otter within this Distinct Population Segment (DPS), and this sea otter DPS is now listed as threatened on the Endangered Species Act. So, what of it? Should the ‘wildlife authorities’ fire up the choppers, Cessnas and Supercubs, hire a sniper or 2, and begin an aerial ‘predator control’ program? The Humane Society have an article saying they apparently feel that orcas are not responsible for the dwindling sea otter population. On the other hand, the US F&WS says “the most likely cause of the sea otter decline, predation by killer whales, is also the most intransigent” (a fancy way of saying “inflexible”). The US Fish and Wildlife Service, along with an increasing number of others, tend to suspect that orcas are the #1 reason for the decline in numbers of this stock of northern sea otters. The research that started the kerfuffle is by Dr James Estes, and his article can be read/purchased here. The article, as excerpted by the US F&WS, suggests:

“These authors examined a suite of information and concluded that the recent population decline was likely not due to food limitation, disease, or reduced productivity. Several lines of evidence, including increased frequency of killer whale attacks and significantly higher mortality rates in Kuluk Bay on Adak Island, as compared to Clam Lagoon, a protected area that is inaccessible to killer whales, also support this conclusion (Estes et al. 1998, p. 473).”

The photo above was taken recently (within the last 2 weeks) in Kasitsna Bay, Alaska, by state Fish and Game researchers. Apparently the sea otter pup, perhaps 30 feet in the air in this photo, survived the attack (the orca smacked the pup with its tail), but the sea otter’s mother wasn’t so fortunate. According to one Kachemak Bay Research Coordinator, “the whales stripped (or shucked) the fur off the mom and passed the carcass between them under water and then brought it to the surface near their skiff so they could see it” – pretty intense stuff to witness, for sure.

So it appears orcas are definitely preying on sea otters in the Alaskan waters, indeed possibly threatening the southwestern population segment. The population of sea otters in the Aleutian Islands is listed ‘threatened’ on the Endangered Species List, and if orcas are doing the killing, it’s intriguing to see as to what ‘management’ might propose to do about it. Recently, for example, a mountain lion in Arizona was killed by State wildlife ‘authorities’ because it ate too many endangered Desert Bighorn Sheep. We’re all familiar with the snafu that is “wolf management”, in both Alaska (or aerial extermination, is perhaps a better term) and the Lower 48 states, particularly the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, starting with the extermination policy that eliminated the wolf from the entire area south of Canada and continuing through to today. A policy of shooting ‘predators’ simply because they prey has existed since people long ago herded once-wild animals and bred them into defenseless, helpless creatures. However, we’ve now reached a point where we somehow justify killing wild predators for preying on wild prey species: wolves are killed because they eat elk and caribou, mountain lions are shot because they eat bighorn sheep, bears are destroyed because they eat moose calves, and so on. Should orcas feeding on sea otters be next in line? Do we support this? Crank up them choppers, load the rifles and cull the orcas? They’re killing sea otters left, right and center (the otter population has shrunk by 50-70% in recent years, with no sign of recovery) in the Alaskan Southwest, and may soon wipe out the species population segment in that area. They’ll then only move on to prey on sea otters elsewhere, if they haven’t yet – this photo above is actually from Kachemak  Bay, which is not part of the region for the southwestern Alaskan northern sea otter DPS, suggesting the killers, Wolves of the Sea, have moved their bloodlust further afield already. And what when they run out of sea otters to feed on? Innocent sea kayakers and surfers might be next, eh?

In Alaska, the Govt shoots grey wolves on the tundra from helicopters and planes, so why not shoot black and white “wolves of the sea” from the air as well?

I often wonder if wildlife can sustain much more of our ‘wildlife management’.



PS – parts of this post are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and meant to not be taken too seriously, though certainly pondered. For a look at the efforts of the US F&WS (the management agency for the listed sea otters) in helping preserve the sea otter, here is their ‘Recovery Plan’. Mainly, it suggests forming teams,preparing recovery plan drafts and monitoring things. Useful stuff. I’m sure the sea otters, as they’re knocked 10 meters into the air and watch their dying brethren get their rich, dense fur stripped from their naked, bleeding bodies by intransigent 8 ton killing machines, will breathe a sigh of relief knowing “the feds” have got their back.

That said, the F&WS do have a nice summary sheet that might be of interest, with some helpful information. Also, note there is indeed precedent for something like this. In 2008, NOAA Fisheries Service allowed 3 states to ‘lethally take’ protected Californian Sea Lions (protected under the Marine Mammals Protections Act, MMPA), as the Sea Lions were preying on Endangered Steelhead and Salmon. Idaho, Oregon and Washington were granted permission to ‘permanently remove’ as many as 85 animals per year.

5 thoughts on “Orcas Killing Sea Otters

  1. J Roggow

    Thanks for the insight. I’m going to write a letter to the Arizona Fish & Game Dept. to voice my opinion on how they handled the removal of the mountain lion! I’m outraged!
    At least if they thought the moutain lion was a problem, they could have relocated him!
    By killing him and wasting a beautiful, wild, animal, they acted totally irresponsible!
    Thanks for informing us!


  2. Laurent

    Good for for thought, Carl. I, for one, wonder when we are going to learn to just let nature be and try to live in harmony with it rather than trying to control it. Humans sure have a lot of gall to think they can be the police force for mother nature. Really pretty ridiculous when you think about it. But, we do have the guns, so we gotta do something with them, I guess.

  3. Carl D Post author

    Hello Julie,

    Thanks for the post here. Yes, that seemed to be a pretty unfair action, IMO. It’s definitely a tricky situation to deal with because relocations so rarely work with predators like big cats or bears. But there certainly has to be a more reasonable solution than a bullet.

    Hey Laurent,

    I think your finally point brings it home – that’s really what it is about, IMO. We have, in some sense, this power. I think we’d do better to learn to control THAT rather than everything that moves around us. 🙂



  4. Mark

    Interesting Carl. I wonder what value the otters hold to some special interest group? It seems there is always some other motive behind “wildlife management” – either the fisherman aren’t getting enough fish, hunters enough elk, etc.

  5. Carl D Post author

    hey Mark,

    The otters are of interest to some native subsistence folks, and tourists, but that’s about it. The issue here, really though, is “how do we approach ‘management’ of wildlife?” .. do we go about trying to juggle numbers, or take some real steps to get outta the way? In my opinion, the more we play the rubics cube game, and juggle this with that, the further we get from needing to mature and manage ourselves. The entire wildlife management concept, and I know this is offensive to some folks, is merely a distraction from the real problem, and a refusal to address our own behavior. In short, it’s bogus. 🙂



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