Endangered Species Handbook

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Persecution and Hunting


The Eurasian or Common Otter (Lutra lutra) has been persecuted since the
13th century in Britain, and a dog, the Otter Hound, was bred to hunt it (Chanin 1985). This otter was officially designated as a pest by a 1566 English law, which authorized local constables to offer bounties for their destruction because of their supposed predation on fish (Chanin 1985). At that time, fish ponds on the estates of the wealthy were stocked to supply the tables of the affluent (Chanin 1985). They were also thought to be competitors with fishermen for game fish such as trout. For hundreds of years, high bounties were paid, contributing to their disappearance from many areas (Chanin 1985). Hunting otters with dogs was the only effective manner of pursuit, and in the 16th century, the Assembly of Norwich decreed that fishermen should conduct two or three otter hunts per year to avoid being fined (Chanin 1985). Estate game keepers continued over the centuries to persecute these playful animals in the British Isles, pushing them close to extinction.
In Europe, prejudices are gradually fading, but the Common Otter, despite its name, is no longer common. It has declined drastically in Britain and most of western Europe, and is rare throughout much of its range elsewhere in eastern Europe and Asia as a result of continued persecution, fur trapping, habitat loss and chemical contamination of its environment (Chanin 1985). This species is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the category designating species in danger of extinction, and in which commercial trade is not allowed between the Party nations. The 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies the species as Vulnerable. An increasing number of people are becoming acquainted with this delightful animal. Not until 1978 did the otter receive official protection from hunting and trapping in England and Wales, and in the intervening years, a strong "Save the Otter" campaign, begun by Friends of the Earth, has had positive results (Chanin 1985). Surveys completed during the 1970s found that otters had become extremely rare in England, and were in steep decline. In parts of southwestern England, otters are now increasing with legal protection, and they are being reintroduced into areas where they had been hunted or trapped out. In 1982, protection was added in Scotland, in spite of continued opposition from otter hunters and those who harbored old prejudices (Chanin 1985). In the Netherlands, reintroductions of otters are returning them to long vacant habitat.
Izaak Walton's views of the otter were not scientifically refuted until the 20th century. Best known as the author of the 17th century book, The Compleat Angler, a compendium of information about fishing in England, he quoted a fishermen of the times: ". . . my purpose is to bestow a day or two in helping to destroy some of those villainous vermon; for I hate them perfectly, because they love fish so well, or rather, because they destroy so much, indeed, so much, that in my judgment, all men that keep otter-dogs ought to have pensions from the King to encourage them to destroy the very breed of these base otters, they do so much mischief." Scientific studies of otter diets established that these animals did not pose threats to game fish populations. A 1942 study found that North American River Otters (Lutra canadensis) prefer slow-moving forage fish, such as suckers, mudminnows and sticklebacks, to fast-moving trout. Some game fish are taken, but subsequent studies established that such fish make up a small percentage of the otter's diet. A 1955 study by biologist Richard Ryder examined stomachs of River Otters (Lutra canadensis) trapped in Michigan and found forage fishes (primarily mudminnows) in 56 percent, crayfishes in 22 percent, amphibians in 17 percent, insects in 13 percent, and trout in 13 percent of all otters examined. Ryder concluded that otters are opportunistic feeders, catching prey items in proportion to their abundance and in inverse proportion to their swimming ability. Thus they benefit game fish by removing overpopulated fish species that compete with trout for food from streams and waterways. In a dramatic demonstration to illustrate its food preferences, a River Otter was placed in a large tank with both trout and crayfish. Ignoring the fast-moving trout, the otter went directly for the crayfish.
Other species of otters also have been found to prefer slow fish, especially bottom-dwellers not desired by either sport or commercial fishermen. Yet they are still being persecuted in many parts of the world. The Marine Otter (Lutra felina), a small otter native to the Pacific coast of western South America, has been so persecuted by fishermen for alleged damage to fisheries (Nowak 1999) that it is now listed as Endangered on the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Sea Otter (Enhydris lutris), protected from previous hunting for the fur trade, began to recover its numbers in the North Pacific, but has recently declined to Endangered status as well as a result of persecution by fishermen, oil spills and predation by Killer Whales.
One young California Sea Otter filmed by Jacques Cousteau became very tame, cavorting with the cameramen and allowing itself to be petted. A few days after the Cousteau crew left the area, this young otter washed up dead on the beach, having been shot. It was conjectured that this friendly otter had approached a boat with fishermen who shot it. Fishermen have overharvested abalone beds for these extremely valuable mollusks and blamed Sea Otters for depleting them, yet abalone form only a small part of their diet. Some Sea Otters eat no abalone at all, specializing in other foods. Moreover, they eat sea creatures that prey on the kelp, without which abalone and other wildlife would not flourish. This species is considered a positive element in the ecosystem.
River Otters in North America were persecuted by European colonists, many of whom shot them on sight. These animals, described by early explorers as highly visible, bold and playful, became shy, secretive and nocturnal after centuries of persecution and fur trapping in the United States and Canada. By the 1950s, they had disappeared altogether from vast areas in the country, from Pennsylvania south to northern Georgia and throughout the Midwest south of Michigan and Minnesota, west to Utah (Nilsson 1985). Beginning in the 1970s, reintroductions of otters live-trapped in Canada, Michigan and other areas where they are still relatively common, have taken place in West Virginia, Arizona, Tennessee, upstate New York, Missouri and several other Midwestern states. In some cases, the reintroductions have failed, but for the most part, the North American River Otter is on the way to reoccupying its original range.
Otters are not regarded benignly by fish hatchery managers and commercial catfish farmers in the South. State Fish Departments and the Fish and Wildlife Service operate hundreds of hatcheries throughout the country, raising trout and other fish. Many of these are non-native species, such as Brown Trout, a European species, or native species, such as Rainbow Trout, that are released far from their natural ranges for the benefit of sport fishermen. These hatchery programs are regarded negatively by many ecologists who have documented that the released fish often cause great damage to ecosystems, outcompeting native fish and introducing diseases. Yet state and federal agencies conduct control programs on otters who raid their ponds. Rather than screen the ponds from otters, who can hardly be blamed for finding hatchery fish easy to catch, these authorities have had laws changed in many states to allow shooting and trapping of otters that come onto hatchery property. Placing screening over fish ponds and hatcheries--and fencing them--will prevent otters, as well as fish-eating birds such as egrets, herons, Ospreys and Bald Eagles, from preying on the fish being raised. This should be carried out instead of lethal methods, which also sometimes kill protected waterbirds. Such control programs do not achieve success in any case because even if depredating River Otters are killed, other otters will be attracted to the ponds, replacing those killed.
Eleven species of otters are listed by the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, four as Endangered, three as Vulnerable, one as Near-threatened, and three as Data Deficient. This represents a high rate of threat, 85 percent, as the otter, or Lutrinae family, has only 13 species. Otters tend to be thinly distributed in their ranges, wide-ranging, slow-reproducing and long-lived--all qualities that make them vulnerable to population declines.

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