People from the Sugpiaq Tribe and Kyuquot/Chekleset First Nations have been adapting to the return of sea otters in their territories and the profound changes they have triggered (Portraits by Ilja Herb. All portraits were obtained with written consent that included permission to use and distribute photos).

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Recovering populations of top predators affects both ecological and human communities and is therefore a substantial global challenge. Along the northeast Pacific, the recovery and range expansion of sea otters is triggering a cascade of effects that profoundly impact coastal ecosystems and the adjacent coastal communities. When otters are absent, sea urchins, crabs, clams, abalone and other shellfish are abundant, supporting commercial and subsistence fisheries. In contrast, when sea otters are present, there is a substantial reduction in shellfish, but kelp forests that support biodiversity and fish habitat flourish. While the ecological changes tied to sea otter recovery are well documented, there is less information about how coastal people are adapting to major changes in food security (i.e. access to shellfish), livelihoods, and resource management. This is especially true for coastal Indigenous communities that are directly impacted by sea otter recovery in their territories, but whose voices and perspectives are seldom presented or even acknowledged.

(Left) When otters are absent, shellfish are abundant, supporting commercial and subsistence fisheries. (Photo credit: Jenn Burt). (Right) When sea otters are present, sea urchins are suppressed causing kelp forests to expand, but shellfish size and density are greatly reduced affecting human harvest of these species (Photo credit: Lynn Lee).

Through a collaborative partnership with Indigenous leaders and knowledge holders from Alaska to British Columbia (BC), we conducted workshop focus groups to identify a suite of conditions that could improve coastal Indigenous peoples’ ability to adapt to the recovery of sea otters. We then used a community-based survey approach to compare adaptation perspectives from two communities with the longest experiences of recovering sea otter populations – the Sugpiaq Tribe in Alaska (~60 years) and the Kyuquot/Chekleset First Nations in BC (~45 years).

Our findings reveal that the level of agency and power communities have during their experience of sea otter population recovery greatly influences their ability to adapt to the changes otters bring. While the Sugpaiq and Kyuquot/Chekleset communities differed in how they ranked adaptation conditions, they identified four broad strategies as critical to improving coexistence with sea otters: (1) strengthen Indigenous governance authority, (2) promote adaptive co-management of sea otters, shellfish and kelp, (3) weave Indigenous knowledge and western science into management plans, and (4) establish ‘learning forums’ to share experiences, provide cross-community support, and exchange management advise.

Overall, our study suggests that enhancing Indigenous peoples’ ability to coexist with sea otters will require a transformation in current resource management if we are to navigate towards a system that is both ecologically sustainable and socially just. More broadly, this work highlights the need for more Indigenous authority, knowledge, and leadership in addressing the challenges that accompany predator-recovery in complex systems where people and nature are tightly linked.

Otter eating a clam and sea urchin (Photo credit: Erin Rechsteiner).