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For millennia, British Columbia’s coastal Indigenous peoples managed their relationship with the land and sea, that enabled them to thrive alongside the abundant life found there. Research continues to find evidence of historical Indigenous management systems—something confirmed by First Nations groups. Research also points to the value of using traditional knowledge to inform how coastal ecosystems are managed today.

Anne Salomon is a leading marine ecologist and a professor with Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) School of Resource and Environmental Management (REM). She is also a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. Salomon has been collaborating with coastal First Nations groups throughout her research career, and these partnerships have helped her ask important research questions that are relevant historically, culturally, ecologically and from a conservation perspective.   

One of Salomon’s collaborations is investigating the historical prevalence of sea otters in the Pacific Northwest. This research has brought together a diverse group of Indigenous leaders, knowledge holders, artists and scientists from B.C. and Alaska working together to better understand and plan for the profound changes to local ecosystems triggered by the return of sea otters. Together, they launched the Coastal Voices project.

For a recent study, Salomon, SFU REM graduate and first author Erin Slade and University of Victoria Professor Iain McKechnie measured the size of ancient mussel shells at archaeological sites along the B.C. coast spanning almost 6,000 years. They compared them to mussel sizes at sites with and without sea otters today. The researchers found large mussel shells at the sites of human settlement, indicating that sea otters were rare or absent during the archaeological record at Indigenous villages. Yet, evidence shows sea otters thrived in other areas, where humans did not harvest shellfish. Their paper, Archaeological and Contemporary Evidence Indicates Low Sea Otter Prevalence on the Pacific Northwest Coast During the Late Holocene, outlines the findings of the study. It was supported by the Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv and Tseshaht First Nations, and has been widely reported in the media.

The findings have implications for how sea otters are managed today. Since they have been given protected status, their populations have rebounded. However, sea otters now compete with local Indigenous communities who hold constitutionally protected rights to harvest the same shellfish.

We spoke with Professor Salomon about her work.

Can you explain more about your findings and how are these different to shellfish populations today?

Since sea otters consume large amounts of shellfish and target large individuals, large mussels can only survive in otter-free areas. We found abundant large mussel shells at ancient village sites. Today mussels of that size are only found in areas where sea otters have been absent for more than 100 years. Our research indicates people kept sea otters out of shellfish harvesting areas which allowed people to consistently harvest large shellfish. The result was likely a patchwork quilt of sea otters along the coast, with these keystone predators present in some areas and rare to absent in others.   

What are the implications of this research when it comes to sea otter management today?

The modern recovery of sea otters, once an endangered species, is typically viewed as a conservation success story, which it is, owing in large part to the laws that protect them. But when viewed through the lens of deep time, with the due goals of ecological sustainability and social justice, it becomes an example of a policy failure. In the past, Indigenous communities had governance and management protocols in place that secured the persistence of sea otters and access to shellfish for food, tools and trade. Today, Indigenous people have a constitutionally protected right to access shellfish for food, social and ceremonial purposes, but they are not permitted to hunt sea otters as they once did, with the explicit purpose of protecting shellfish in some areas. As a result, local shellfish beds have become so depleted by sea otters that community members can no longer harvest shellfish locally. Their food security and food sovereignty has been profoundly affected.

So, the return of sea otter populations raises broader questions around the negotiation of reconciliation and natural resource policy more broadly. This research forces us to re-think our baselines, reconsider what our recovery goals ought to be and for whom and at what space and time scales they ought to be assessed. It forces us to ask: who should hold the authority, responsibility and accountability to manage our relationship with sea otters specifically—and with nature more broadly?

We need to confront the legacy of colonialism in our laws and policies, in our conservation targets and research process and our own cultural norms and values. We need to reimagine new legal frameworks and institutions requiring and supporting First Nations rights and responsibilities to collaborative management.

Can you tell us how your research has been influenced by your collaborations with First Nations?

Collaborating with Indigenous Nations and informing the conservation initiatives that they are leading has enabled my students, colleagues and I to work beyond the realm of western science and ask questions that are relevant to local communities and informed by their knowledge and governance principles. There is vast opportunity to learn from how Indigenous management systems worked to sustain resilient shellfisheries, abundant kelp forests and persistent sea otter populations. This study in particular, has changed our fundamental understanding of what coastal food webs looked like in the past and how they operated across the Northwest Coast of North America.

Since the publication of this paper and through your work with Coastal Voices, has any progress been made on enabling First Nations rights to collaborative management?

Broadly, I am seeing more and more signs of managers, policy makers and scientists being willing to think differently and engage in conversations and actions that are more in line with the reassertion of Indigenous rights and responsibilities to environmental management. I am optimistic that more equitable ocean conservation policies are on the horizon, in large part due to the Indigenous-led conservation efforts that are underway.

This research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada, Pew Foundation, Canadian Foundation for Innovation, Hakai Institute, Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv, and Tseshaht First Nations, as well as Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, Leaders for Sea Change program and the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.

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