Pacific Northwest
Sea otters are effective predators who eat 20 per cent of their body weight each day. After becoming extinct 50 years ago, their numbers on the B.C. coast have reached over 8,100, thanks to a translocation from Alaska.Arthur Morris / Getty Images

PNW - Indigenous communities managed sea otter populations for millennia, study finds

A new study has found that coastal Indigenous communities have managed their relationship with shellfish and sea otters for millennia.

Written by Erin Slade, Iain McKechnie and Anne K. Salomon, the research challenges widely held assumptions about historical sea otter populations and is calling Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) into question.

Longstanding claims by Indigenous communities argue that the protection of sea otters under SARA not only interferes with traditional harvesting practices, but also creates an imbalance within ecosystems that have been managed for thousands of years.

Through archaeological and ethnographic evidence, the report determined that hunting and management practices of Indigenous communities regulated sea otter populations near human settlements, reducing the pinnipeds’ negative impacts on shared shellfish resources.

“It kind of shifts the way that a lot of people think about ecosystems,” said Slade.

While humans are commonly associated with negative ecosystem impacts, the recent graduate of Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management said that hasn’t always been the case.

“It continues to be that humans can have positive interactions with ecosystems and really are a part of them,” she said.

The sea otter fur trade began in the 1700s when the first pelts were traded to Captain James Cook from the village of Yuquot in Nootka Sound.

Sought after for their dense fur, which sold for vast profits in China and Europe, the species were widely hunted and extirpated.

Their worldwide population dropped from 300,000 in the 18th and 19th centuries to fewer than 2,000 by the early 1900s, and the last verified sea otter on B.C.’s coast was shot near Kyuquot in 1929, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

In response, DFO translocated 89 sea otters from Amchitka and Prince William Sound, Alaska, to Checleset Bay on the west coast of Vancouver Island between 1969 and 1972.

They were designated as a species of special concern in 2009, following an assessment by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada in 2007, said DFO.

“They are listed under the Species at Risk Act because they may become threatened or endangered,” said DFO. “Their susceptibility to oil and the proximity to major oil tanker routes make them particularly vulnerable to oil spills.”

Despite that, the species has since repopulated to total of 8,110 sea otters, according to a range-wide survey of the B.C. coast in 2017.

“It has since repopulated a portion of its historic range in British Columbia, but is not yet clearly secure,” stated DFO. “Population numbers remain small and require careful monitoring.”

Written by Erin Slade, Iain McKechnie and Anne K. Salomon, the research challenges widely held assumptions about historical sea otter populations and is calling Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) into question.

Longstanding claims by Indigenous communities argue that the protection of sea otters under SARA not only interferes with traditional harvesting practices, but also creates an imbalance within ecosystems that have been managed for thousands of years.

Through archaeological and ethnographic evidence, the report determined that hunting and management practices of Indigenous communities regulated sea otter populations near human settlements, reducing the pinnipeds’ negative impacts on shared shellfish resources.

“It kind of shifts the way that a lot of people think about ecosystems,” said Slade.

While humans are commonly associated with negative ecosystem impacts, the recent graduate of Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management said that hasn’t always been the case.

“It continues to be that humans can have positive interactions with ecosystems and really are a part of them,” she said.

The sea otter fur trade began in the 1700s when the first pelts were traded to Captain James Cook from the village of Yuquot in Nootka Sound.

Sought after for their dense fur, which sold for vast profits in China and Europe, the species were widely hunted and extirpated.

Their worldwide population dropped from 300,000 in the 18th and 19th centuries to fewer than 2,000 by the early 1900s, and the last verified sea otter on B.C.’s coast was shot near Kyuquot in 1929, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

In response, DFO translocated 89 sea otters from Amchitka and Prince William Sound, Alaska, to Checleset Bay on the west coast of Vancouver Island between 1969 and 1972.

They were designated as a species of special concern in 2009, following an assessment by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada in 2007, said DFO.

“They are listed under the Species at Risk Act because they may become threatened or endangered,” said DFO. “Their susceptibility to oil and the proximity to major oil tanker routes make them particularly vulnerable to oil spills.”

Despite that, the species has since repopulated to total of 8,110 sea otters, according to a range-wide survey of the B.C. coast in 2017.

“It has since repopulated a portion of its historic range in British Columbia, but is not yet clearly secure,” stated DFO. “Population numbers remain small and require careful monitoring.”

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