Until recently, no living person had seen an otter in the Detroit River. The semiaquatic animals abandoned the waters over a century ago due to overhunting and pollution. But thanks to ongoing cleanup efforts, the captivating critters are back.
As reported by The Gander, a publication owned by Courier Newsroom, the joyful evidence of the otters’ return was captured by Eric Ste Marie, a Ph.D. student in marine ecology at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. During a stroll along the river, he noticed a small whiskered head bobbing in the water, so he did what today’s student does: He got on social media.
“A straight-up river otter in the Detroit River,” he posted on Twitter. “Have you ever heard of something so controversial?”
Ste Marie knew that his otter sighting was something special. But he didn’t know that he was the first person to spot an otter in the Detroit River in over 100 years.
According to Courier Newsroom’s The Gander, river otters were prominent members of the local ecosystem until humans forced them from the area a century ago. Many were wiped out due to overhunting — their pelts were popular among high society in Europe and made for lucrative trading. By the time the fur trade went out of style, the Detroit River had become too polluted to accommodate its former furry residents.
For decades, many thought that the otters would never return. But on April 25, 2022, Ste Marie (and Twitter) brought the marine mammals into the spotlight.
Luckily for the otters, Ste Marie sought out regional scientists to confirm his sighting. They were more than thrilled with the Ph.D. student’s evidence.
“That is one of the single most remarkable ecological recovery stories in North America, and it’s in our backyard,” said John Hartig, a prominent Great Lakes scientist and professor at the University of Windsor.
The otters’ return is confirmation that cleaning up, even if seemingly late, can restore ecosystems and animal habitats. Conservationists are celebrating — not just for the otters but for the entire ecosystem.
There Otter Be a Law
Before conservation projects began, the Detroit River was so polluted that it supported very little life. If the otters have come back, that means many other former Detroit River inhabitants have begun to return as well, as otters are carnivores and rely on an abundance of river life to survive.
Despite this good news, more work must be done to revive the historic home of the otters and their marine companions. Pollution still runs deep in the riverbed, making restoration a lengthy endeavor. Climate change is also altering ecosystems and making conservation action less predictable.
But scientists are not backing down. Courier Newsroom and The Gander report the latest restoration efforts involve replacing man-made concrete or metal shorelines with natural banks. This should encourage many more otter sightings, as natural banks are where the busy swimmers build their nests.
“One was seen and photographed, but we suspect there are more,” said Dr. John Hartig. Michigan residents and conservationists can’t wait for more of their adorable aquatic neighbors to make their social media debuts.
This story was originally published in The Gander, a publication owned by Courier Newsroom.