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Research collaboration between First Nations and scientists key to adapting to B.C.’s growing sea otter population

December 10, 2015
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Simon Fraser University marine biologist Anne Salomon is featured in a new online documentary that explores the impact of B.C.’s growing sea otter population on marine ecosystems, fisheries and First Nations.

Once decimated by the Pacific maritime fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, sea otter populations are now flourishing thanks to ecological conservation measures. But their growing population is significantly affecting coastal ecosystems. The otters’ shellfish consumption is causing a serious decline in valuable shellfish fisheries while increasing the size of kelp forests and the catch-rates of some fish living there.

This leaves coastal communities facing complex tradeoffs, says Salomon, who has been working with coastal First Nations communities, other scientists, and soon, policy makers, to devise strategies for addressing the ecological, socio-economic and cultural changes triggered by the otters’ recovery.

Coastal Voices: Navigating the Return of Sea Otters” documents this unique research partnership as well as the first in a series of knowledge-sharing workshops that bring together scientists from across North America with coastal Indigenous leaders from Alaska and British Columbia.  

“Only by understanding our past can we intentionally redefine our future,” says Salomon, a professor in SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management.

“By bringing together the vast archive of knowledge and expertise held by coastal First Nations with contemporary ecological, archaeological and social science, we hope to illuminate adaptive strategies for the future.”

Hup-in-Yook (Tom Happynook) is head hereditary whaling chief of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation and member of the research partnership’s steering committee. He says, “The concept we are trying to spread is the idea of preparing for the arrival of sea otters by protecting and sharing our food sources. .Our goal is to figure out what role humans played in the past and what role are we going to play in the future in protecting our coastal ecosystems. How do we adapt to and prepare for the arrival of sea otters?”

The project also touches on the much larger and fundamental issues of Indigenous rights and equity in the future conservation and governance of ocean spaces, marine resources and ecosystems..

Kii’iljuus (Barbara Wilson), an SFU graduate student who is a co-investigator in the project’s research, says: “The recovery of sea otters and their impacts needs to be considered in the marine management plans that our nations and the government are currently working on. We need ideas to get ready. The transition can happen when people are well informed.”

More information on this unique research partnership, and the full documentary, Coastal Voices: Navigating the Return of Sea Otters can now be viewed online.

SFU marine biologist Anne Salomon