Rising sea otter population signals major ecological changes

ILLUSTRATION: Janis Mcmath / The Peak

Sea otters are returning to the coast of British Columbia and that means that dramatic ecological changes are about to occur. A research initiative has been formed to study those changes.

One leading scientist on the project is Anne Salomon, an Associate Professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University. She, along with her students, has studied kelp forests since 2010 to learn about changes to these forests over time.

With this information, they hope to make predictions about how the kelp forests will change in the future with the return of the sea otters, and in particular how this will affect coastal communities that depend on these resources.

However, the reestablishment of the sea otters along the coast is not a simple conservation story. According to Salomon, “it’s a conservation conundrum, and yet it is also something that people have been worried about and thinking about for thousands of years.” The documentary Coastal Voices: Navigating the Return of the Sea Otters showcases a workshop in 2014 that brought together indigenous leaders, elders, resource managers and scientists to discuss these complex challenges. These include fundamental issues of food security, food sovereignty, along with issues of indigenous rights, title, and self-determination.

Human interactions with sea otters and kelp forests span millennia. This is evident in the archeological, ethnographic, and oral histories that persisted through time. However, the species was almost eliminated by the Pacific maritime fur trade in the 18th and 19th century and the effects of colonial settlement, both of which changed the way coastal systems were managed.

The elimination of the sea otters resulted in an increase in their prey including sea urchins, abalone, clams, and crabs. Since these are popular food sources for humans, the return of the sea otter means taking into account the decline of these shellfish for food, and subsequent impact on local economies.

As outlined in a media release, a rise in sea otter populations will indirectly decrease the number of sea urchins, a decrease which aides in the recovery of kelp forests as sea urchins are voracious grazers. Therefore, sea otter recovery has been associated with increased catch rates of fish that feed off of kelp, and enhanced settlement of baby rockfish. However, Salomon went added that their return also means that the endangered abalone will be preyed upon.

The media release also explained how before colonization, the interactions between humans and sea otters were more balanced; indigenous people maintained sea otter populations at numbers that allowed them to thrive, while also protecting their food sources.

Salomon shared that based on these complexities, there needs to be collaboration between individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences working together to manage the return of sea otters. This project hopes to give coastal communities and policy makers the resources and shared knowledge required to manage the reestablishment of sea otters from an ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural perspective.

Salomon and her partners will carry on this project into this summer to continue helping coastal communities to prepare for the sea otters’ return.“We all view systems through different lenses, and we all have different ways of knowing, so when we put that together we can only learn more.”