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Why the return of sea otters to Canada’s west coast is making waves

The group of otters floats between amber stalks of kelp, preening their coats and foraging for urchins. Sheltered in a natural bay off Haida Gwaii, one of the most unforgiving coastlines on the west coast of Canada, the skittish mammals are hidden – from the fast-moving currents, and from groups that have pledged to shoot them on sight.

Generations ago, the global frenzy for pelts pushed northern sea otters to extinction in these islands. In recent years, however, a few dozen have returned, travelling up the Pacific coast in search of new food sources. Their location remains a secret amid fears that the fledgling population could be wiped out once more.

To some, their return is a conservation success, and a testament to the resilience of the natural world. Experts hope their presence marks a turning point in the future health of the ecosystem.

But to others they are feared and despised. Some communities worry the creatures’ insatiable appetites could wreak havoc on a fragile marine ecosystem that has adapted to their absence.

For thousands of years, sea otters and the Haida people lived alongside one another. They enjoyed many of the same foods – urchins, clams, crabs, mussels and abalone – prompting the Haida to cultivate extensive clam gardens as a hedge against the hungry otters. Their pelts– sea otters have the densest fur in the world – were also prized by the Haida for use in ceremonial regalia, clothing and bedding.

That coexistence was shattered in the early 1800s when otters became the focus of a maritime fur trade. Russian, Spanish, American and British traders all battled for control of valuable resources along the Pacific coast. The global population of northern otters dropped from 300,000 to as few as 1,000. In Haida Gwaii, they disappeared completely.

Their absence reverberated through finely tuned marine ecosystems.

“When urchin populations are kept in check by sea otters, you get these healthy kelp forests – which create habitat, provide food for ocean creatures and for people, and encourage biodiversity,” says Hannah Kobluk, a Vancouver-based marine ecologist and doctoral researcher. “But when otters disappear, that balance disappears.”

When we think about the return of the otters, we acknowledge it’s not necessarily a good thing for everyone

Niisii Guujaaw, marine planning manager

Without otters, urchins move in to devour the vegetation, in effect clearcutting undersea kelp forests and creating “urchin barrens”. The spiny echinoderms reproduce rapidly, and can enter a dormant “zombie” state where they eke out an existence but prevent kelp from returning. Today, miles of these underwater barrens make up much of the seascape off Haida Gwaii.

As a keystone species, otters have an outsized effect on an ecosystem, Kobluk says. Efforts to repopulate their traditional range began in the 1970s on parts of the Pacific coast, using Alaska sea otter populations. Haida Gwaii was never one of those locations, but the effects of the otters’ return elsewhere has provided a glimpse into possible changes.

Kelp forests have started to come back, which brings a host of benefits – but otters also need to eat a quarter of their body weight each day, and have been feasting on prized shellfish.

“In some places, the conservation of otters was seemingly given the highest level of priority, with other values falling by the wayside,” says Kobluk, who works alongside hereditary leaders from the Haida, Heiltsuk and Nuu-chah-nulth nations as part of the Coastal Voices project.

“People in communities that relied on clam fisheries, for example, might feel that the otters’ rights are prioritised over their own,” says Kobluk.

Because otters are an endangered species, there is little recourse for communities who feel the reintroduction has put their livelihoods at risk.

The Haida nation, however, may be in a better position to plan for the otters’ return. It has spent decades fighting for recognition of its sovereignty, and created what is now a global model of Indigenous stewardship of lands and waters: in partnership with Parks Canada, the southern portions of Haida Gwaii are formally under the conservation philosophy of gina waadlux̱an gud ad kwaagid” (everything depends on everything else). This concept emphasises the belief that humans must coexist within, not alongside, an ecosystem.

“If you take out the sea otter, things change. But when you bring them back, if you leave out the humans, things aren’t the same as they used to be,” Gidansda Guujaaw, the hereditary chief of the Skedans Ravens, told a working group of scientists and First Nations leaders in 2013 as sightings of otters became more frequent.

In 2019, when 13 sea otters, including a mother and pup, were spotted in the Gwaii Haanas protected area, the two groups launched a series of meetings with residents to ensure otter-management plans included the public.

“When we think about the return of the otters, we acknowledge it’s not necessarily a good thing for everyone. And we knew it would alienate the community if we came in telling people that sea otters are only going to be good,” says Niisii Guujaaw, a marine-planning manager at the Council of the Haida Nation.

“Because you’ll often then meet community resistance or people saying, ‘Let’s just shoot them’. We tried to start our project recognising we don’t have a continuity in our relationship with sea otters.”

In recent decades, Haida Gwaii has suffered devastating effect of invasive species. Stories from other coastal nations have prompted fears that the return of otters could be disastrous, too.

Among the biggest concerns is the northern abalone, a shellfish harvested on a small scale by the Haida for generations until commercial and recreational fishing decimated the populations. In the 1990s, the abalone fishery was shuttered along the Pacific coast. Haida have since eagerly awaited a recovery of the species – a prospect that could be at risk if otters return.

Because otters breed slowly, it will probably take decades before the effect of their return is felt by communities. But all options are on the table, says Guujaaw, including the prospect of community-led hunts if the populations rebound.

“The majority of our community members feel it’s complicated. I feel it too,” she says. “There’s going to be ecological wins, but there’s always going to be huge changes that also impact our wellbeing and our food systems.”

When Parks Canada and the Haida nation selected an image to symbolise the conservation ambitions of Gwaii Haanas – their co-managed protected marine area – they chose a sea otter holding an urchin, representing the pursuit of balance.

“People want to think about this in black and white – that sea otters are here, or they’re not. Or that we should have kelp forests everywhere,” says Kobluk.

Related: ‘Crabs everywhere’: off Canada’s Pacific coast, Indigenous Haida fight a host of invasive species

“But the reality is, you need a messy grey area that acknowledges the competing issues, perspectives and realities of otters returning to an area. You need to acknowledge the need for balance.”