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Understanding and preparing for profound ecological, social, and cultural changes
With the return of sea otters to BC’s West coast, Anne Salomon, a marine ecologist in the School of Resource and Environmental Management, saw a unique opportunity to conduct research with communities to better understand and prepare for the profound ecological, social, and cultural changes this key predator triggers. Taking an unconventional approach to her research, she assembled the Coastal Voices team, comprised of a diverse group of Indigenous leaders, knowledge holders, scientists, and artists from BC and Alaska. Using the lenses of traditional knowledge and western science, their goal was to collect and share information to build a respectful dialogue that better equips coastal communities and policy makers with socially just and ecologically sustainable strategies to navigate the changes that come with the recovery of the sea otter.
Sea otters have coexisted with coastal Indigenous peoples for millennia, until the maritime fur trade in the 19th century wiped out their populations in BC and along most of the Pacific coast. The loss of these keystone predators had ecosystem-wide impacts because sea otters are extraordinary consumers of all shellfish species. With sea otters gone, super-abundant sea urchins decimated kelp forest habitat, but high shellfish abundance also fuelled coastal fisheries and community harvest.
In the early 1970’s a Canadian-US government effort relocated 89 otters from Alaska to the west coast of Vancouver Island, just north of the Kyuquot/Chekleset community. The reintroduction worked. There are now over 5,500 sea otters inhabiting about a third of their original territory in BC.
In areas where the sea otters have returned, sea urchins, clams and abalone populations have been or are being decimated. This has dramatic effects to the food security and cultural well-being of many coastal Indigenous communities. However, the return of sea otters brings tourism opportunities and also triggers the expansion of kelp forests, which provide critical habitat for many fish species and a diversity of marine life. There are complicated trade-offs.
The Coastal Voices research team is building knowledge about what the ecosystem used to look like before the extirpation of otters and what is happening now that it is shifting with their reintroduction. The team is currently focused on identifying the factors that enable or constrain a community’s ability to adapt to the profound social and ecological changes that sea otters bring. They want to know, “What are the key strategies that help coastal Indigenous communities coexist with sea otters?”
Working with a steering committee of Hereditary Chiefs, and through community visits, surveys and interviews, the research team identified four areas that are critical in helping communities to co-exist with sea otters:
- strengthening Indigenous governance authority,
- promoting active and adaptive otter management
- acquiring and integrating Indigenous knowledge, and
- establishing learning platforms.
Using photos, film, and social media along with traditional academic publishing, the Coastal Voices research team tells a compelling story of adaptation and resilience. It tells the tale of healthy ecosystem recovery and how the transition may be difficult but over time, communities may benefit.
The images to the right were taken from the Coastal Voices website. Visit the site to hear their voices.