You’ll Never Go in the Water Again

October 1, 2014

The seafood is so fresh it looks like sashimi. First a shrimp, Elfin's favourite, is lobbed onto his stomach, where the 14-year-old sea otter uses one of his front legs to peel off the shell before scooping it up into his mouth. Next, a fillet of cod, then clam, then squid — his least favourite, according to senior trainer Kristi Heffron. The only way to tell is in the fraction of a second's hesitation before he scarfs it down.

Elfin can afford to eat: there's no blubber on him or the three other otters (Katmai, Tanu, and Walter) at the Vancouver Aquarium. "It's topnotch, restaurant-quality seafood he's getting," Heffron says. "We really believe here that we should give the otters nothing but the best quality. We try to keep their diet varied."

Sea otters are the weasels of the ocean, and unlike the dolphins and whales they are in no danger of being turfed out of the combined research facility/tourist attraction. Let the cetaceans take the heat from politicians and animal-rights activists, who have been battling over their future and captivity in recent months. "Keeping whales in captivity is wrong. They're very sensitive, and putting whales and dolphins in sensory-deprived settings is very cruel," says biologist Alexandra Morton, who was disappointed by the park board's July 31 ruling to let the aquarium retain its whales and dolphins (but not allow them to breed).

She calls the aquarium's sea otters a "different situation" that she has no problems with. Renowned for their almost animatronic cuteness (see the YouTube video "Otters Holding Hands"), once prized and therefore hunted for their sleek fur, sea otters were nearly extinct a century ago. But now, they thrive on the West Coast, so hearty and hungry they decimate wild shellfish populations like geoduck and abalone.

The four sea otters at the aquarium eat six times a day, consuming 25 percent of their body weight in seafood. "They have high metabolic rates and eat a lot," says American biologist James Estes at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "They have strong and well-documented impacts on many of their shellfish prey." (They're protected under Fisheries and Oceans Canada, but their effect on crops has upset the province's shellfish growers, who declare otters' protected status unwarranted.)

It takes a full-time person at the aquarium to prepare the marine mammals' food. All the seafood brought in is part of the Ocean Wise program, which means it was sustainably obtained. The quality is so good it could be served to humans. Weigh all that seafood and it amounts to 73,000 kilograms annually. The one million aquarium visitors each year, by comparison, eat 3,900 kilos' worth at the café.

The aquarium says it's worth feeding the otters such a diverse and high-quality diet. It costs the facility, a nonprofit organization with an annual budget just over $30 million, $35,000 a year to feed each one.

"We've made choices. We could purchase cheaper items that are not sustainable, but we need to do what we preach," says Brian Sheehan, curator of the marine mammals at the aquarium. "We are very aware of the changes on the East Coast, depletion of cod stocks, and concerns in other areas. We don't want to make the same mistakes. But we do owe these mammals in our care the best we can supply for them."

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