Rare sighting: River otter spotted on Detroit River, a sign of cleaner water

Posted at 9:18 PM, May 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-02 23:24:25-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — As a Ph.D. student in marine ecology, Eric Ste Marie knew what he saw was rare. He was walking along the river near his campus of the University of Windsor when he spotted a river otter.

“The otter came within like 3 feet of us and then swam underneath the Ambassador Bridge,” Ste Marie said. “I knew it was probably unusual that the otter was there, that’s why I made sure to get some video of it.”

Ste Marie, who’s originally from Montreal, didn’t quite know how rare the moment really was until later when he researched the topic on the internet and sent his video to an expert.

That expert was John Hartig, a Great Lakes scientist based in metro Detroit. He's a Visiting Scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor, and he's also on the Board of Directors for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

“It's the first time in 100 years that we have an otter in the Detroit River," Hartig said.

Hartig has been anxiously awaiting the otter’s return. The animal is known as an indicator of clean water, and Hartig said the Detroit River was once one of the most polluted rivers in North America.

“This is a sign of hope, this means that our pollution prevention and our pollution control programs do work,” Hartig said. “That is one of the single most remarkable ecological recovery stories in North America, and it’s in our backyard.”

According to Hartig, the river otters were driven from the Detroit River in the early 1900s due to the fur trade and pollution. While there has been rumor of otter sightings in recent years, this video is clear proof.

“It's pretty cool to see the evidence of ecological recovery and people get to say, oh my goodness, they are back,” Hartig said.

Although sightings still remain rare, it’s another triumphant return of a once common species that experts and everyday people will be excited to see.

“As long as I'm in Windsor, every time I'm walking on the river, I'm going to be looking over to see if I see another otter and hopefully, I will," Ste Marie said. "Hopefully, everyone gets to see a bunch of otters soon.”

"We're not going to see a lot of them in the near future, but it’s something to keep an eye out for,” Hartig added. “Now that citizens are made aware of this, they’ll be looking for them."