A recent study by Simon Fraser University researchers and West Coast First Nations collaborators recommends a transformation of current environmental-management procedures to allow greater Indigenous input and authority in controlling sea otter populations.
The paper, published as an open-access article on May 12 in People and Nature, a journal of the British Ecological Society, considered the research generated by a collaborative initiative called Coastal Voices.
The project, which started in 2012, brought together scientists and Indigenous leaders to conduct surveys, interviews, and workshops from Vancouver Island to Alaska. (Go here for a collection of articles and releases connected to the timeline of the project.)
It involved the Haida, Heiltsuk, and Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. The experiences of northern Vancouver Island's Kyuquot/Chekleset First Nations and southern Alaska's Sugpiaq people from the villages of Port Graham and Nanwalek were heavily surveyed, as they have lived with the recovery/reintroduction of sea otter populations since the 1970s and 1950s (respectively).
On its website, the Coastal Voices goal is described as follows: "Through the lens of traditional knowledge and western science, our goal is to collect and share information to build a respectful dialogue to better equip coastal communities and policy makers with socially just and ecologically sustainable strategies to navigate the changes that come with the recovery of this key predator [the sea otter]."
After the near-extinction of the sea otter on North America's West Coast in the 18th and 19th centuries due to ruthless exploitation by the commercial fur trade, international protections enacted in the early 1900s started populations of the marine mammal on the road to recovery.
The apex predator of coastal kelp-forest ecosystems has successfully moved back into many of its former territories, from Alaska to southern Vancouver Island (recovery efforts in Washington state, Oregon, and California are ongoing and less successful at the present time.)
Because of the sea otters' preference for eating abalone, sea urchins, crabs, and clams, its increased numbers have led to a decrease in valuable shellfish stocks that coastal residents, including Indigenous communities, have become accustomed to harvesting, both for commercial and subsistence purposes.
To help resolve the conflict inherent in managing a protected species having a significant and ongoing effect on coastal communities, the research project (in its own words) examined "the conditions that affect people's ability to adapt to the social‐ecological regime shift triggered by sea otter recovery. We worked within a collaborative Indigenous partnership led by Hereditary Chiefs representing 19 First Nations and Tribes spanning south central Alaska through British Columbia."
In an SFU release announcing the study's publication in People and Nature, paper coauthor Kii’iljuus (Barbara Wilson, a Haida matriarch and recent SFU graduate) said: “Our people actively managed a balanced relationship with sea otters for millennia. 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.”
Paper authors included three researchers affiliated with SFU and four First Nations contributors.
In its conclusion, the People and Nature paper said: "Our study illustrates how regime shifts can disproportionally impact remote Indigenous communities that are reliant on subsistence food sources, constrained in economic opportunities and frequently marginalized in natural resource decision‐making. Based on our empirical data combined with adaptation and social resilience theory, it is evident that enhancing Indigenous coexistence with sea otters will require a transformation in current environmental governance systems that increases local Indigenous authority and enables community‐based management grounded in traditional knowledge and practice."
The report continued: "Overall, this work highlights the need for more Indigenous voice, authority and leadership in generating socially just and ecologically sustainable management options to address predator‐induced regime shifts within complex and tightly coupled human‐ocean systems."