Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book notes: History of pathogens and sea otters

Western University historian Donald Avery's book Pathogens for War gets a shout-out from Tom Walkom in the Toronto Star for its new information about all the biological-weapons research and testing Canada did (and denied doing) during the Cold War.  And seems we once volunteered to test a nuclear weapon just outside Churchill, Manitoba.

There are no sea otters in Haida Gwaii, and Sea Otters of Haida Gwaii is a beautifully produced and scrupulously written historical and scientific analysis of how that came to be so and how it might change. 

Lyle Dick of Parks Canada provides the history of people and sea otters on the Northwest Coast. The sea otters were a casualty of the extraordinary global fur trade, launched suddenly in the late 18th century, that linked Boston sailors, Haida hunters, Canton consumers and London financiers in the war on the sea otters. The history doesn't quite stop there. A few sea otters survived into the 20th century, and the species has been successfully re-introduced on Vancouver Island and is happily extending its range.

Dick's colleague Norman Sloan provides the natural science and the conservation politics of their almost-certain return to the islands. Actually there have been sea otters spotted around the Haida Gwaii islands in recent years. They have not yet established residence and begun to breed, as of publication, but it seems likely to happen soon.

Conservation politics: When sea otters are around, they eat a lot of sea urchins and abalone. When sea otters are extirpated, sea urchins and abalone proliferate, and kelp forests are wiped out by their grazing. So if sea otters come back, so do kelp forests, and the sea-urchin deserts will be reforested .  But the valuable abalone fishery is going to shrink. 

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