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Taking Aim at Otters

Cute but voracious, their legal protection may be eroding. Part two of a special Tyee report.

Lana Okerlund 5 Oct

Lana Okerlund is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver ( To read the first of this two-part series, click: 'Too Many Otters?'

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Are they a 'renewable resource'?

[Editor's note: Yesterday's article traced the decimation and rebound of the sea otter off B.C.'s coast, its role as a 'keystone species' in the ecosystem, and frustration by Nuu-chah-nulth people who vie with the creatures for shellfish.]

First Nations communities aren't the only ones concerned about the return of sea otters to B.C.'s coast. Commercial shellfish harvesters are also perturbed about what they call a "pest."

"The otters are the biggest threat to the sustainability of our fishery," says a newsletter published by the Pacific Underwater Harvesters Association. According to PUHA, the shellfish industry around Tofino, "historically the most productive of the South Coast urchin fisheries, has collapsed." A 2003 study by the B.C. Seafood Alliance and PUHA found that "reintroduction of otters has cost the shellfish industry $212.5 million."

Tim Joys is a commercial shellfish diver who represents PUHA on the sea otter recovery team. "My position is that there should be areas where the sea otters can go and areas where they can't," he says. "I love sea otters; they're a great little animal. But they're not very good as far as having a shellfish fishery. I don't think you can live in both worlds. If you don't have sea otters, then you can have sea urchins and geoducks and abalone and all the other shellfish. If you have sea otters, they will moonscape the area."

Roger Dunlop, a scientist employed by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, points out that at least the shellfish harvesters are mobile. "The coast is pretty big here in B.C., and otters are still a fairly local phenomenon. Commercial fishers rotate around the coast and have openings here and there. They're not in the same crunch as people who live in the epicentre of sea otter recovery. The Nuu-chah-nulth believe their people are part of that territory. The Nuu-chah-nulth are not moving, so they have to bear the burden of sea otter conservation for the Canadian public."

Some people -- members of the sea otter recovery team among them -- argue that clams and other shellfish only became plentiful after the extirpation of sea otters, and that a commercial or even a food fishery wasn't a historical reality. But Dunlop thinks this is only a partial truth. "If a sea otter was dumb enough to come around a First Nations village, it got shot or was scared away," he says.

With sea otters protected under endangered species law, this form of management is no longer available to the Nuu-chah-nulth or anyone else. At least not legally.

Protected by law

After it was passed in 2002, Canada's new Species at Risk Act (SARA) raised the profile of sea otters and other endangered species to a whole new level. The law required that species listed as extirpated, endangered, or threatened be protected, and that recovery strategies and action plans be developed and implemented. SARA also enshrined the requirement to consult with First Nations groups and use Aboriginal knowledge in determining what species to list and in managing their recovery. As a result, claims Dr. Pippa Shepherd, species-at-risk coordinator for Parks Canada, "our whole approach has become more inclusive of First Nations. Sea otters are just one example."

To develop the sea otter strategy and action plan, a recovery team was formed in June 2002. Among its members are scientists, resource managers, conservationists, First Nations representatives, and commercial shellfish harvesters. Though having so many divergent interests on the team resulted in some heated discussions, the group worked rapidly to draft a recovery strategy. In February 2004, the team conducted 10 community consultation meetings to present and gather feedback to their draft plan.

By that time, the otter population around Kyuquot Sound and Checleset Bay appeared to have stabilized at a carrying capacity of just over 1,000 animals. What's more, the reintroduced animals were expanding their range north to the tip of Vancouver Island, south to Estevan Point and Hesquiat Harbour, and across the Hecate Strait to the central mainland coast near Bella Bella. A small number of individuals had also been sighted as far south as Barkley Sound and as far north as Haida Gwaii.

Though this was great progress, the recovery strategy pointed out that the population was still vulnerable to a single catastrophic event, particularly an oil spill, and that the otter's range was still only half what it once was. "Extra otters in one area colonize other parts of the coast," explains Shepherd. "From a biological standpoint, that's the best way for recovery to happen -- naturally. But while the population has been expanding, First Nations living in the core of the range have had to compete with higher numbers of sea otters for shellfish."

Nerves were raw in most of the communities where the 2004 consultations were held. One of the First Nations attendees in Massett stood up and stated, "Just because someone in Ottawa says we're low on otters, it's not up to them to say we have to have them back. They should hear what we say, and rethink it, and maybe not have a recovery plan, and let the people decide if they want a recovery plan. One guy can have [an otter] in his bay, but if I don't want it in my bay, I can deal with it, just like it was done long before the commercial hunt. The people are the law makers. As a hereditary chief, I am a law maker. If we see otters up here, we'll go out and shoot them all."

Dunlop recalls this meeting well. He also recalls what happened next. "A tribal elder got up and dressed the guy down and said, 'That's not our way. These animals are out there and are valuable and shouldn't be wiped right out. You can harvest them, use them, pay your respects to them, but they need to be there.'"

'May be important to consider people'

Anne Stewart is the public education coordinator at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. In 2005, Stewart completed her master's thesis on the conflicting views about sea otters held by conservation professionals and the Nuu-chah-nulth, and she wrote about the consultations. "The goodwill of the relationship between government and the people who live with sea otters was called into question," she observed. "The non-intrusive approach taken by the sea otter recovery team recognizes the ability of the sea otter to rebound, yet does not address the concerns of the people who live with sea otters... If this is an ecosystem controlled by top-down predation, then it may be important to consider people, specifically the Nuu-chah-nulth-aht."

In several ways, the sea otter is a test case for the relatively new SARA legislation. First, the act contains a provision to compensate affected parties for socio-economic losses caused by a species' recovery. So far, this clause has not been used for any species. The process to identify who has suffered losses, and to what extent, would surely be controversial. While the sea otter recovery strategy states that consequences of the sea otters' return would be "further evaluated for costs and benefits," it is unclear when this evaluation -- to be conducted by DFO -- will be complete. The DFO representative on the recovery team declined to be interviewed, citing an edict from higher up in the department to keep mum on the subject of this particular animal.

Sea otters are also testing SARA in terms of what happens when a listed species rebounds. In April 2007, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) down-listed the sea otter to "special concern" from "threatened." Their report has been submitted to the Minister of the Environment, who now has nine months to decide whether to change the otter's legal status under SARA. Shepherd believes the down-listing will happen, and that this is affirmation of the species at risk process. "COSEWIC's assessment is based on science and Aboriginal traditional knowledge, not politics. It reflects the fact that sea otters really are recovering, thanks to the efforts of so many."

Ceremonial killing

If the sea otter's legal status is changed to special concern, SARA provides an avenue for the government to permit First Nations to kill a limited number for ceremonial purposes, subject to scientific assessment and advice from the recovery team. Even so, DFO's permission will be required before anyone will be able to hunt sea otters legally.

The need for public government assessment makes Dunlop doubt a hunt will be allowed anytime soon. "Think about it," he says. "What would happen to you if you were a government sea otter biologist and you authorized a hunt for sea otters? How would the public react to that? Or non-governmental organizations? They'd flip out."

He may be right. Even before COSEWIC's reassessment was released, the Nuu-chah-nulth announced they were considering a selective hunt of a few sea otters for ceremonial purposes. In reply, a May 2007 article in The Vancouver Sun bemoaned that "One of the feel-good wildlife stories of the year -- the removal of BC's sea otter from the federal threatened species list -- has taken a sobering turn as Ottawa confirms it may allow aboriginals to hunt the marine mammals."

Otters as 'renewable resource'

Whatever their status, sea otters seem likely to remain polarizing figures. As more and more of the mammals migrate toward Haida Gwaii, or farther south along Vancouver Island, or up along the mainland coast, their impact on coastal fisheries will continue. "Twenty or thirty years from now, people in those communities will find they, too, are in competition with sea otters for their livelihood," says Dunlop. "That's what happened here in Kyuquot."

"It's easy to align yourself with people who want to protect all sea otters," he continues, "but I look at things differently. I live in a coastal community. The people here are my friends. I hear their concerns about their livelihood and I know they've got a point because sea otters eat everything. I also have a wildlife background. I see sea otters as another renewable resource that can be managed."

Despite her obvious affection for this charismatic creature, Shepherd agrees with Dunlop that there is a viable middle road for otters, where a certain number are protected for their ecosystem function while others are allowed to be hunted. She points to the probable federal down-listing as indication that this is, indeed, where otters appear to be heading.

"People misunderstand the difference between a commercial hunt and a small kill for cultural purposes," she says. "The ability to kill a few sea otters to maintain a culture that has existed for thousands of years -- and that may have suffered a lot from otters' disappearance and then their return -- actually is a good news story."

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