One of the opening shots of The Way Back, an early 1970s film documenting the return of sea otters to the B.C. coast, shows one of the furry creatures wrapped in kelp, cuddled like a baby in a blanket. The government-funded piece details part of the translocation of 89 otters from 1969 to 1972 from Alaska, after more than a century of overhunting made the animals extinct in British Columbia.
“Where the sea otter population still survives there is an abundance; it seemed natural to restore them to one of their habitats,” states the film’s narrator. “Man decided to undue the damage and give sea otters a hand.”
Early in the film the late Mowachaht/Muchalaht Chief Jerry Jack speaks of the traditional use of sea otter fur, which was often worn by a Ha’wilth to greet visitors to his territory.
“It’s the best fur in the world, but since only the chiefs could wear it, not many were killed,” says Jack while being filmed on the shore of Nootka Island.
But this changed after Captain James Cook first landed in Yuquot in 1778. As they were the best hunters, First Nations from Vancouver Island’s coasts were soon engaged to acquire pelts for lucrative European and Russian markets. By the mid 1800s intensified trading brought the species to serious decline, leading eventually to the last sea otter being killed on the B.C. coast in 1929.
Fifty years after sea otters were reintroduced to British Columbia, populations have grown exponentially to approximately 5,000. But this has brought unforeseen ecological consequences, including a correspondingly sharp decline in sea urchins in the areas where otters inhabit.
With a metabolic rate up to three times that of land mammals of a similar size, sea otters are highly adept at gathering shellfish to satisfy their voracious appetites. They can dive 30 metres, and are able to use rocks as tools to open urchins, crabs, clams, mussels or other shellfish. The animals can eat 30 per cent of their body weight in a day, which translates to as much as 15 kilograms for an adult male.
Nowhere is the influence of sea otters more apparent than in waters around Kyuquot, as witnessed by Hilda Hanson over her 100 years of life.
“We had big clam beaches in Kyuquot. Actis, it was the best clam beach that ever was. All kinds, big clams, little clams,” she recalled, adding that people could once go down to the beach with a can to dig up whatever they wanted. “No more. No more clams. That’s when k̕wak̕aƛ [sea otter] came around, ate up all the clams. We had to go somewhere else.”
The account of Hanson and other members of the Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' First Nation helped to inform a recently published research project on the resulting complexities of the reintroduction of sea otters to the B.C. coast. Titled Enabling coexistence: Navigating predator-induced regime shifts in human-ocean ecosystems, the study explores how to better manage the species to enable a balance with others who rely on the ecosystem - including people living in remote coastal communities.
According to the project’s co-author Jenn Burt, the current situation has disrupted time-honoured subsistence practices in Kyuquot.
“Imagine you lived five hours from the nearest grocery store,” she explained. “And your whole existence and the existence of your family has lived off this productive garden in your backyard - and then all of a sudden somebody came in and ripped up all the things from your garden.”
Generations after the reintroduction of sea otters, younger Kyuquot residents are so unfamiliar with the shellfish that their ancestors lived on that they decline it when offered, observed Wii-tsts-koom, Anne Mack, who also authored the study. This points to the larger issue of the removal of seafood from the modern Nuu-chah-nulth diet, which Mack believes could be contributing to cancer rates.
“It’s a health issue,” said Mack, who is also Ha’wilth of the Toquaht First Nation. “That’s been really prevalent in the last years.”
Benefits for kelp, eco-tourism
The project notes that while otters can cause shellfish to thin out, the absence of sea urchins allows kelp forests to flourish. More kelp can benefit some fish.
“[More otters] are good for the herring and for other little fish,” reported Richard Gillette of the Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' First Nation in one of the study’s many interviews. “There was a pass that didn't have any kelp and now it's thick with kelp - and last year we saw a herring spawn on it.”
The multi-year study also indicated other benefits with the return of sea otters, including providing an attraction for tourists who venture to Kyuquot for a taste of the wild northwest coast. But while eco-tourism may bring some employment and revenue into the remote area, several respondents commented that the money that comes with being an attraction doesn’t replace the value of eating healthy food from one’s own territory.
“Having more [income] sources would not help because there is still no seafood,” said Peter Hanson.
Comparison to Alaska
Besides Kyuquot, Enabling coexistence studied another coastal Indigenous community living through the resurgence of sea otters on the West Coast. Situated on the southcentral shore of Alaska, the Sugpiaq Tribes have a similar population to Kyuquot, and also reside in a remote location with a strong history of subsisting off the ocean’s bounty. But the sea otter came to their territory a decade earlier in the late 1950s, naturally moving in from a nearby location on the northern state’s coast.
Interviews with the Sugpiaq noted a more balanced view of the sea otter – without the degree of frustration towards the ocean hunter as was observed in Kyuquot. This could point to the difference across the US border in how the federal government permits the Suqpiaq to pursue their traditional methods of population control: While sea otters are protected from hunting under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, in Alaska the US Marine Mammal Protection Act permits Indigenous Peoples to harvest for subsistence, traditional handcrafts and clothing.
Although a halt in government funding has ended the program, Burt credits the Indigenous involvement in the Alaska Sea Otter and Stellar Sea Lion Commission for establishing a better management regime.
“Models like that are definitely things we can learn from and the Nuu-chah-nulth management plan for sea otters has a lot of the same kinds of things in it,” she said, noting that those in coastal villages will need to play a major role for the plan to be put in place. “It has to be implemented in the communities because there aren’t DFO officers in communities.”