In the 18th and 19th centuries, fur traders wiped out Vancouver’s sea otter population. Recognizing their value in the ecosystem, conservationists brought 89 otters from Alaska from 1969 to 1972 to replenish the species along the B.C. West Coast. Tragically, thousands of Alaskan otters left behind perished in the great Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, when a supertanker hit Blight Reef in Prince William Sound, leaking over 10 million gallons of oil into the sea.

Readers born in the mid-’80s or earlier will never forget the harrowing images of animals hurt and killed in the spill. News photos of ducks, otters, and other sea life soaked in oil were impossible to avoid. And just a small amount of oil on an otter’s fur can be deadly. Otters have one of the thickest pelts in the animal kingdom, a quality that attracted fur hunters and led to their demise in B.C. Those same thick pelts insulate them in cold waters so they won’t freeze to death, but crude oil breaks down this natural insulation. Otters victimized in the oil spill would also ingest the poisonous oil on their fur when licking themselves as part of their daily grooming.

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It’s hard to believe 25 years have passed since the Exxon Valdez spill. After all those years, sea otters have finally been declared recovered. It was a long process that the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council blames on lingering exposure to hydrocarbons in the otters’ environment and feeding grounds. As research biologist Brenda Bellachey points out, otters feed on clams, and crude oil in the sediment damaged their food supply.

Like most native species, sea otters play a vital role in the health of their habitats. They eat large amounts of various seafood, including sea urchins, which eat kelp. When sea urchins are kept in check, kelp populations thrive and absorb over 12 times as much carbon. Kelp also provides a habitat for a diversity of sea life.

The oil industry does create jobs, and most Americans depend on oil for a variety of applications, especially transportation. But tourism and recreation industries create jobs, too; jobs that will be compromised if oil industry dangers are ignored. No one wants to visit, swim in, look at, or live near a polluted shore devoid of life. Even ecosystems in places like Alaska are relevant to the quality of life in more populated areas, as shown by B.C.’s need for their otters in 1969. As a nation, we are addicted to oil, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s up to each individual to decide what’s more valuable: the comfort of driving a car everywhere, or a thriving ecosystem teeming with wildlife, fresh water, and air. It’s all about choices.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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