X̱aayda Gwaay.yaay Ḵuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lx̱a – The Sea Otters Return to Haida Gwaii

Published by info@haidanation.com on

ḴuḴuu have returned to Haida Gwaii.

ḴuḴuu sea otters are returning to Haida Gwaii – migrating from the central coast of British Columbia, the north end of Vancouver Island, and possibly Southeast Alaska. ḴuḴuu are returning on their own, re-establishing themselves in their historic home ranges.  It’s expected to take decades for numbers to increase, so now is the time to learn, consider future impacts, and build plans.

ḴuḴuu sea otter diving
Yahl ‘Adaas Cori Savard

ḴuḴuu in bull kelp. Photo credit: Niisii Guujaaw

Before the fur trade: co-existence

Haida and ḵuḵuu have a long history together.  Before the marine fur trade in the 1700s and 1800s, Haida and ḵuḵuu co-existed for thousands of years. ḴuḴuu were integral to the ecosystems that provided food and resources to Haida society over that long time. 

Haida and ḵuḵuu lived together as neighbours eating some of the same seafoods, including urchins, clams, crabs, mussels and abalone. ḴuḴuu feature in Haida stories and their furs were used in regalia. This long relationship was disrupted when intense hunting during the marine fur trade led to the local extinction of ḵuḵuu from Haida Gwaii waters in the early 1800s. The return of ḵuḵuu marks another important point in the long-standing relationship.

ḴuḴuu in bull kelp. Photo credit: Niisii Guujaaw

ḴuḴuu‘s return is significant

ḴuḴuu are a cultural and ecological keystone species. They can radically change the local places where they live.  Among the many coastal habitats they change, ḵuḵuu have a large influence on kelp forest ecosystems that are critical habitat for many species of fish, invertebrates and seafood. Abalone, rockfish, herring and salmon, are some of the kelp-dependent species important to us.

Kelp forests also help protect shorelines from erosion by acting as natural breakwaters from storm surge. They remove carbon from the atmosphere by converting it quickly into plant material that feeds marine ecosystems. As one of the most productive ecosystems on earth, kelp forests provide many benefits to coastal ecosystems and coastal communities. The wellbeing of Haida, ḵuḵuu, urchins, herring, abalone, salmon, and many others are all interconnected through kelp forests. Ginn ‘wáadluwaan gud .ahl kwáagíidangGina ‘waadlux̱an gud ad kwaagid everything depends on everything else.

Ngaal  Ngáal Bull Kelp
SG̱idG̱ang.Xaal Shoshannah Greene

Bull kelp forest. Photo credit: Lynn Lee

Changes to the ecosystem: when ḵuḵuu disappeared

ḴuḴuu’s absence following the marine fur trade led to dramatic underwater changes. ḴuḴuu are one of the very few predators of large red sea urchins, a prickly kelp eater. Without ḵuḵuu to eat them, sea urchin numbers exploded. The urchins grazed the kelp forests down to a tiny fraction of their former size. The once lush underwater kelp forests turned to urchin barrens – areas thick with sea urchins but little else. Red urchins can survive for a long time in a dormant state when there is no more food, and this allowed urchin barrens to persist and prevent kelp forest regrowth. Other changes occurred too. Large invertebrates that ḵuḵuu eat, such as abalone, grew in numbers and changed their behaviour, adapting to the ecosystem without ḵuḵuu.

Both photos above: Urchins eating kelp. Photo credit: Lynn Lee

Red urchin barrens. Photo credit: Lynn Lee

Possible changes to the ecosystem: when ḵuḵuu return

ḴuḴuu’s return, just as their earlier disappearance, will bring changes to the coastal ecology of Haida Gwaii. Learning from other places where ḵuḵuu has returned, we expect the ḵuḵuu population to grow slowly over the next few decades. ḴuḴuu will change the local places where they are foraging for food, but their population expansion over all of Haida Gwaii will take time, likely decades. Where ḵuḵuu are feeding, we expect kelp forests to grow larger, deeper and more diverse. We expect urchin populations to decrease dramatically and other large shellfish like abalone, clams and sea cucumbers, to decrease in numbers and be smaller in size.

Ngaal  Ngáal Giant Kelp
SG̱idG̱ang.Xaal Shoshannah Greene

Juvenile rockfish in a kelp forest. Photo credit: Emily Adamczyk

ḴuḴuu will also change other coastal ecosystems such as eelgrass meadows and clam beds. Eelgrass meadows are expected to become more diverse and healthier. In turn, healthy eelgrass habitat will better nurture juvenile rockfish, salmon, herring, crabs, and more that call eelgrass home. ḴuḴuu will eat intertidal and subtidal clams like butter clams and geoducks, and reduce the number and size of clams where ḵuḵuu forage. In the intertidal area, their foraging will be limited to higher tides when they have enough water to dive and dig.

In other parts of the coast where other First Nations and ḵuḵuu lived together, clam gardens were an important management tool that allowed both to co-exist and each to get enough seafood for their needs. This and many other management strategies were used in the past to ensure that people and ḵuḵuu could both get enough food to eat while keeping a healthy and balanced ecosystem. ḴuḴuu may also help us deal with impacts of some marine invasive species such as the European green crab that can destroy eelgrass meadows, by eating the invasive species. These are just some examples of changes we are likely to see over time.

SG̱idG̱ang.Xaal Shoshannah Greene

Bull kelp. Photo credit: Joe Crawford

Changes can be considered good or bad

Some changes we will consider as positive and others as negative based on our values and expectations today.

The Haida Fisheries Program and Gwaii Haanas are working together to monitor ḵuḵuu’s return and to study changes to the land, sea and people. At the same time, we are listening and learning from communities on Haida Gwaii and communities who are already living with ḵuḵuu about how to live with ḵuḵuu as neighbours. The more we know about ḵuḵuu in our waters the better we can consider likely changes and plan for a future of co-existence.

An opportunity to reflect and re-learn

Today we are in a unique position to learn what changes ḵuḵuu’s return will have on the ecology of the islands and our communities. Their return offers the chance for us to reflect on our past with ḵuḵuu and consider new relationships based on historical connections and today’s values. In the past, Haida used many different methods to take care of the land and sea while living alongside ḵuḵuu. We can draw on that learning from the past while building our present and future relationships with ḵuḵuu. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to shape how we move forward in co-existence with ḵuḵuu. Now is the time to start planning for the return of ḵuḵuu to Haida Gwaii.

ḴuḴuu sea otter resting
Yahl ‘Adaas Cori Savard

X̱aayda Gwaay.yaay Ḵuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lx̱a
The Sea Otters Return to Haida Gwaii

Planning together for our future co-existence with ḵuḵuu

The Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas are exploring ways to approach the return of ḵuḵuu. In 2020, the Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas initiated X̱aayda Gwaay.yaay Ḵuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lx̱a The Sea Otters Return to Haida Gwaii.  This project focuses on community conversations about what co-existing with ḵuḵuu on Haida Gwaii can look like now and into the future.  It also focuses on bringing together existing knowledge about how ḵuḵuu have affected other ecosystems including human communities. We will apply that learning to help us direct how we want our relationship with ḵuḵuu to develop on Haida Gwaii.

Through community engagement sessions, the Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas are listening to community expectations and questions and are discussing options based on Haida worldviews, ethics and values, cultural and local knowledge, and science. 

Bull kelp. Photo credit: Emily Adamczyk

How to get involved

Your knowledge and opinions about ḵu•ḵuu are important.  Bringing forward your understanding is critical for defining a new relationship with ḵu•ḵuu based on the values of our communities today. One way to let us know your thoughts is by participating in upcoming community engagement sessions and our community values survey.

The next community engagement sessions
are planned for fall 2022. 

We are looking for your answers to the following questions. 

1. In your opinion, what are some of the positive aspects about the natural return of sea otters to Haida Gwaii?

2. What are some of the things that you are worried about in terms of sea otters returning to Haida Gwaii?

Please email your responses to: seaotter@haidanation.com

If you see ḵuḵuu while you are out on the water please share your observations with us at seaotter@haidanation.com. Note the date, location (GPS coordinates if possible), number of ḵuḵuu and any details you observe about their behavior and grouping.

Bull kelp. Photo credit: Clint Johnson

Building ḵuḵuu ecosystem models

In addition to community engagement, the Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas are also co-leading another part of the X̱aayda Gwaay.yaay Ḵuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lx̱a The Sea Otters Return to Haida Gwaii project that will result in models of the Haida Gwaii ḵuḵuu ecosystem. The team is documenting, analyzing and modelling ecological, social, and cultural changes that ḵuḵuu and our activities are expected to have on coastal ecosystems. We are working with knowledge holders, researchers, academics, representatives from government, fishing industry, environmental organizations, coastal communities and other tribes and nations, some of whom are already living with ḵuḵuu. The resulting Haida Gwaii ḵuḵuu ecosystem models will integrate a lot of knowledge and data and will be used to inform management planning.  

Exploring questions and possible future scenarios

The ḵuḵuu ecosystem models will allow us to explore what is expected to happen under different management scenarios and changing environmental conditions with climate change.  We can examine impacts to important fisheries, including Haida traditional fisheries and commercial fisheries.  We can explore the impacts of different marine management scenarios and strategies on ḵuḵuu, kelp, abalone, clams, rockfish and people. Using the models, we will be able to generate maps and diagrams to help us visualize and understand a very complex system in an ever-changing world.  The ḵuḵuu ecosystem models will be a valuable tool to inform management decisions about our valuable marine resources and help us make decisions in line with Haida values.

Nudibranch in eelgrass. Photo credit: Emily Adamczyk

Many questions about ḵuḵuu’s return

The return of ḵuḵuu brings many questions. 

Will shellfish like abalone continue to recover?

Will more kelp bring more fish?

Will ḵuḵuu’s return threaten or benefit our food security?

What is the role of traditional ḵuḵuu management in our path forward?

And many others.

The answers to these questions are complex. However, we have a wealth of Haida marine traditional knowledge, local knowledge, and science to draw on that will help us understand the changes we see and guide us in our renewed co-existence with ḵuḵuu. We have research and monitoring information about fish, kelp forests, shellfish, and overall ecosystem biodiversity from Gwaii Haanas, Haida Gwaii and other coastal areas where ḵuḵuu have established. 

The Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas’ approach to ḵuḵuu’s return will follow principles grounded in Haida culture and ecosystem-based management and will be guided by the Gwaii Haanas Gina ‘waadlux̱an KiluhlG̱uhlG̱a Land-Sea-People Management Plan. The guiding principles of Ágan t’asgangGiid tlljuus BalanceGinn ‘wáadluwaan gud .ahl kwáagíidangGina ‘waadlux̱an gud ad kwaagid Everything depends on everything else (interconnectedness), K’uláagée‘Laa guu ga ḵanllns Responsibility, YahgudángYahguudang Respect, Gina G̲án ga únsids kíl tla gudáng’waGina k’aadang.nga gii uu tll k’anguudang Seeking Wise Counsel and, Ísda ísgyaan díi ga ísdiiIsda ad dii gii isda Giving and Receiving will continue to move us forward.

Many Good People Working Together

This project is guided by the Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Management Board, and supported with funding from Nature Legacy, a national Parks Canada conservation program.

List of the many partners contributing to this work:
Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Management Board (Council of the Haida Nation, Parks Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
Gwaii Haanas Field Unit Parks Canada
Haida Fisheries Program of the Council of the Haida Nation
Haida Marine Planning of the Council of the Haida Nation
Haida Hereditary Chiefs
Uu-a-thluk (Taking care of), Nuu-chah-nulth Fisheries
Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department
Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals & Sealaska Heritage Institute
Underwater Harvesters Association & West Coast Geoduck Research Corporation
Pacific Urchin Harvesters Association
Pacific Sea Cucumber Harvesters Association
Marine Invertebrate Section of Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Marine Spatial Ecology and Analysis Section of Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Aquatic Ecosystem & Marine Mammals Section of Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Shellfish Fisheries Management of Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Hakai Institute
Nature United
Marine and Coastal Resources Group of the Province of BC
Dalhousie University
Simon Fraser University
Vancouver Island University
University of British Columbia
University of Victoria
University of Guelph
University of Waterloo
Florida State University
University of Alaska Fairbanks
University of California, Santa Barbara
Nhydra Consulting
Scitech Consulting


hlkáamhlḵyama Bull kelp
ngáal ngaal Giant kelp
guuding.ngaayguudangee Red sea urchin
stuu xasáadaws styuu Purple sea urchin
stuu styuu Green sea urchin
gálgahl’yaan G̱aal G̱ahlxyang Abalone
k’aalts’idaa Sgaadang.nga Rockfish (unidentified rf)
kij kiijii Kelp greenling
skáynaanSkaynang Lingcod
t’anúut’aanuu Eelgrass
k’yúuk’yuu Intertidal clams
skáw k’yuu ‘yuwG̱an Horse clams  
stan skaw Geoduck clams
yáanuu G̱iinuu Sea cucumber
nuu naaw Octopus
chíin chiina Salmon
íinang iinang Herring





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