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Native Otters vs. Invading Cats on a Remote Chesapeake Bay Island

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James "Ooker" Eskridge is a waterman on Tangier Island, in the southern Chesapeake Bay.   He's also mayor of this remote crabbing village of 700 people. But as he motored through the harbor, he confessed that even he could not handle the lawlessness that had hit the town’s crab shacks. 

"Sometimes they wait for the guys to go home for the night," Eskridge said, looking out at the small wooden buildings on silts over the harbor. "You'll see them with their heads out of the water, just waiting... They'll wait until you're at home, and then come for your crab tanks."

Was he talking about..thieves?

"I was having quite a bit of trouble with otters,"  Eskridge explained. "The otters will get in the tanks and eat all your soft crabs." River otters are stocky, muscular members of the weasel family that are native to the Chesapeake region. But they do not look weaselly. They have powerful legs, webbed feet, and can grow up to 40 inches long.

"The otters are pretty good size. They're like small dogs, with sharp teeth and claws," Eskridge said.

Now, I had always thought of otters as cute, playful, fuzzy things.  So I had a hard time believing that they could be causing so much trouble for the island’s crabbers, by plundering their tanks full of soft crabs.

So, to get a second opinion on the story, I went ashore and visited Ken Castelli, director of the Tangier History Museum.

He said it was all true, and worse than I thought. "Stay away from them, because they are cute to look at, but don’t go anywhere near them,"Castelli said.  Really? Otters? "Yeah, every now and then, one will get into a crab house when somebody's working out there, and they'll chase them out, or they'll throw something at them," Castelli said.

"And sometimes the otters stay away, but for the most part, they come back with all their friends later on. They pretty much just work as gangs and they go through your stuff from one end to the other and tear it all apart."

Gangs on Tangier Island? There aren't even any police on Tangier Island!

Back out on the water, Mayor Eskridge told me how he had finally overcome the menace that was threatening his soft crab business.  He found an unorthodox savior one day, adrift on the Bay.  A family of cats. He gave the cats a home in his crab shack. "I actually have four cats out there.  I rescued them during a storm when they were kittens," Eskridge said, pointing to his pier. "They were coming by on a piece of drift wood.  And I just brought them there. I was going to take them back to the island. And I kept them there until they got some size to them."

As the four black cats grew larger and more muscular, they became fearsome and effective guardians of the soft crabs that Eskridge kept in his tanks.  "After the cats had been out there, I noticed the otters quit harassing me," Eskridge said. The mayor was not the first one to figure this out.  Cats work so well in scaring otters, rats, and seagulls away from crab tanks, over the decades, Tangier Islanders let their cats multiply. The cats outnumber the humans on the island.

If the cats could vote, they could elect a cat to replace the mayor.  But, of course, they can't. And so they had no say when the town's leaders brought in a SWAT team of veterinarians to spay and neuter their increasingly out-of-control cat militia. That should give the otters something to cheer about. After all, they’ve been eating crabs here for millennia. Yes, English settlers started fishing and farming here more than 300 years ago.

But from an otter's perspective, it is the cats and their humans that are the real trespassers and bandits.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.