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A sea otter floats in Kachemak Bay, Alaska, in this July 1, 2003 file photo. (Laura Rauch/AP)
A sea otter floats in Kachemak Bay, Alaska, in this July 1, 2003 file photo. (Laura Rauch/AP)

The remarkable comeback of sea otters to the B.C. coast Add to ...

The evening before Barb Wilson faced the chiefs of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations she had a nightmare.

The Haida elder and her colleague, Anne Salomon, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University, had asked to speak with the chiefs about the spread of sea otters on the West Coast. The species is making a remarkable comeback in British Columbia after being pushed to the edge of extinction nearly 100 years ago.

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The revival of the otters is seen by some as a great environmental success story, but it is triggering dramatic ecological change and pitting native fishermen against animals that have a voracious appetite for urchins, crabs and clams.

Ms. Wilson wanted the leaders to embrace the change, to look back to a time when there were many more sea otters than now and native communities lived in harmony with them. But on the eve of that pivotal meeting she was filled with doubt and dreamed she was driving a bus that was careening downhill without brakes.

If anyone had reason not to support sea otter expansion on the B.C. coast it would be the 14 tribes of the Nuu-chah-nulth, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. They rely heavily on shellfish harvesting, and the sea otter population has exploded in their territory, leading to increased predation on shellfish that flourished in the absence of otters.

And here was Ms. Wilson about to tell them it was a good thing the otters were back.

“Oh my God,” she said to herself the morning of the meeting. “Do you know what you’ve gotten into? These guys hate sea otters.”

Sea otters were over-hunted by the fur trade starting in the early 1800s. By 1929 they had virtually been eradicated from Alaska to California.

In B.C., sea otters vanished completely until 89 were released by government biologists on the west coast of Vancouver Island between 1969 and 1972. Spilling into bays both north and south of the original release site, with annual population growths of up to 18 per cent in some areas, they had reached a population of nearly 5,000 by 2008. A new study by Fisheries and Oceans Canada is underway, and it is expected to find there are far more sea otters on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island and at two locations on B.C.’s Central Coast.

Sea otters, which are still listed as a species of “special concern,” have not yet re-established themselves on Haida Gwaii, inside Georgia Strait and along some stretches of the Central Coast.

But that’s coming. The population is steadily expanding and the mission Ms. Wilson and Dr. Salomon have set for themselves is to get First Nations to support a wider return of the animals. They know that will be difficult in some places because sea otters feed voraciously on shellfish that are both commercially and culturally important to native communities.

Although Ms. Wilson initially feared meeting the Nuu-chah-nulth, the chiefs listened to her argument and nodded in agreement.

“They came on board,” Ms. Wilson said. “That was the turning point.”

Ms. Wilson said she was able to win support by telling chiefs: “Our people up and down the coast ate and lived with the sea otters and we want to get back to that … we both have a right to eat.”

Now, one year later, the initiative she and Dr. Salomon started is gaining broad support among coastal First Nations. If the plan succeeds, it will allow sea otter populations to return along the entire coast of B.C. Bringing back sea otters is important, they say, because it will trigger dramatic ecological changes, reshaping the Pacific near-shore ecosystem.

In a recent conference at the Hakai Beach Institute on Calvert Island, native leaders from B.C. and ocean scientists from Alaska to California gathered to examine how to manage the return of sea otters.

It’s estimated that 300,000 sea otters populated the West Coast of North America when Captain James Cook acquired pelts at Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island, in 1778. The soft, rich coats of the otters became a fashion sensation in China, triggering a fur-trading rush to the B.C. coast. But with as many as 18,000 pelts being collected yearly by trading ships, the sea otters were quickly wiped out. By 1830 they had vanished from many areas, Norm Sloan, a Parks Canada marine ecologist and co-author of Sea Otters of Haida Gwaii, told the conference.

In their absence, the marine environment changed dramatically, Dr. Sloan said, and the return of the animals will also have an impact.

“It’s going to change your near-shore ecology,” he said. “There would be very dramatic change … [and] people will be competing with sea otters.”

James Estes, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told the conference that when sea otters are gone, sea urchin populations explode. Sea urchins in turn eradicate kelp forests.

Diving near islands in Alaska, Dr. Estes found that where otters existed, there were extensive seaweed beds and diverse ecosystems, but where otters weren’t found, there were “urchin barrens” where sea urchins thrived but many other species did not

“It was staggering to stick my head underwater and see this,” he said, of finding how urchin barrens depended on the absence of otters, and kelp forests on their presence.

“What you see is pretty much the same thing everywhere,” he said. “Where otters are gone there are lots of urchins and very little kelp.”

The impact is far-reaching and profound, Dr. Estes said, because where there are kelp beds you will find more fish, more sea birds, more mammals, even more eagles.

But delegates at the conference also heard how sea otters are controversial. Ginny Eckert, a marine biologist at the University of Alaska, said sea otters were reintroduced in Alaska in the late 1960s, when 450 animals were released. By 2012 that number had grown to 25,000 sea otters. “This is an incredible conservation success story. A species that was wiped out has come back,” she said.

But that has led to concerns in fishing communities. “I think sea otters are hated, and they are shot [in some places],” Dr. Eckert said.

Hup in Yook, Hereditary Whaling Chief of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation on Vancouver Island, said there is a real worry that as sea otters spread they will come into increasing conflict with shellfish harvesters. But he said native people once lived in harmony with sea otters – before the fur trade led to over-hunting – and he thinks they can again. Some hunting of sea otters will have to be allowed, however.

“It needs to be … in harmony with nature,” he said of the sea otter’s place in the Pacific. And that ecosystem, he stressed, includes humans.

Jenn Burt, a marine ecologist and PhD student working with Dr. Salomon, said in summarizing a group discussion that while most people wanted the sea otter back, they didn’t want otters to be allowed to wipe out shellfish beds.

“The only way is to hunt them in some way,” she said, reporting the views shared by native leaders and scientists. “Maybe you don’t have to kill a whole bunch. Maybe you just have to show enough [they will be shot at] so that they learn.”

But she cautioned that managing sea otters in that way would be controversial. “As soon as it comes into the public eye it becomes difficult because of the cruelty to animals thing. It’s not going to be easy,” she said.

Guujaaw, past president of the Council of Haida Nation, told the gathering that the public would accept native hunting of sea otters, but the reasons for it would need to be explained.

“If you use language like eradicate, or kill, or control, the public will be down on it so quickly to rescue these little creatures we’ll never get anywhere,” he said. “We’ve just got to be seen as a natural part of the ecosystem … otherwise it will get stopped before we get anywhere.”

He reminded the gathering that before the fur trade began, natives on the West Coast had lived in harmony with sea otters for thousands of years and the marine environment had flourished.

“We want to have another 10,000 years like that,” he said.

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