Indigenous collaboration and leadership key to managing sea otter population recovery

May 14, 2020

By Melissa Shaw

A new study, published this week in People and Nature, highlights the need to engage Indigenous communities in managing sea otter population recovery to improve coexistence between humans and this challenging predator. 

The sea otters’ recovery along the northwest coast of North America presents a challenge for coastal communities because both otters and humans like to eat shellfish, such as sea urchins, crabs, clams and abalone. Expanding populations of sea otters and their arrival in new areas are heavily impacting First Nations and Tribes that rely on harvesting shellfish.

SFU lead author Jenn Burt says the study goes beyond a focus on the challenging impacts and really looks ahead to seek solutions going forward. “We documented Indigenous peoples’ perspectives which illuminated key strategies to help improve sea otter management and overall coexistence with sea otters.”

Most research focuses on how sea otter recovery greatly reduces shellfish abundance or expands kelp forests, rather than on how Indigenous communities are impacted, or how they are adapting to the return of sea otters’ that threaten their food security, cultural traditions, and livelihoods.

Recognizing that Indigenous perspectives were largely absent from dialogues about sea otter recovery and management, SFU researchers reached out to initiate the “Coastal Voices,” collaboration.

 “Coastal Voices” is a partnership with Indigenous leaders and knowledge holders representing 19 First Nations and Tribes from Alaska to British Columbia.

Past experiences contribute to key strategies

The collaborative first hosted a workshop where participants identified social and ecological conditions that could improve Indigenous peoples’ ability to adapt to sea otter recovery.

Then a small group of researchers and Hereditary Chiefs visited two remote communities with the longest experience of sea otter recovery – the Alaska Sugpiaq Tribes of Port Graham/Nanwalek and the Kyuquot/Chekleset First Nations in B.C. During their visits they conducted survey-interviews to assess which conditions best enable adaptation to sea otters, and why they work.

Four key strategies were identified by Indigenous communities as critical for the coexistence of people and sea otters:

  • strengthening Indigenous governance authority and shared decision-making in marine resource management;
  • establishing locally-designed adaptive co-management plans for sea otters’
  • incorporating Indigenous knowledge and practices in sea otter management plans;
  • building networks and forums for communities to share sea otter information and experiences.

“The differences in survey responses between the Sugpiaq and Kyuquot/Chekleset were revealing,” says Burt. “They illustrate how both sea otter recovery time scales and different legislative frameworks to sea otter governance and management can influence people’s perspectives and attitudes toward otters.”

“Our people actively managed a balanced relationship with sea otters for millennia,” says co-author and Haida matriarch Kii’iljuus (Barbara Wilson), a recent SFU alumnus.

“Our work with Coastal Voices and this study helps show how those rights and knowledge need to be recognized and be part of contemporary sea otter management.”

Anne Salomon, a professor in SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management, co-authored the study and co-led the Coastal Voices research partnership.

“This research reveals that enhancing Indigenous people’s ability to coexist with sea otters will require a transformation in the current governance of fisheries and marine spaces in Canada, if we are to navigate towards a system that is more ecologically sustainable and socially just,” says Salomon.

Despite challenges, the authors say transformation is possible. They found that adaptive governance and Indigenous co-management of marine mammals exist in other coastal regions in northern Canada and the U.S. They suggest that increasing Indigenous leadership and Canadian government commitments to Reconciliation may provide opportunities for new approaches and more collaborative marine resource management.

Skil Hiilans (Allan Davidson), a Haida Hereditary Chief and study co-author, agrees there is hope. “Our ancestors had a way of managing our relationship with the sea otters, they had a place in the ecosystem. With today's laws there is a delicate balance and Indigenous people need to be a part of the discussion regarding their management.”