Sharing our waters with kuu once again

Submitted by Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Management Board

Here on Haida Gwaii, we are familiar with the story of kuu sea otter. Until 150 years ago and the maritime fur trade, people and kuu coexisted in the waters of Haida Gwaii. Our marine life has been living in ecological imbalance since then. Without kuu as a keystone predator to eat them, sea urchins became hyperabundant in Gwaii Haanas. Urchins greatly reduce kelp forests as they eat almost all the kelp, other seaweed and small attached organisms in their path. We also know that kuu eat some 100 different kinds of seafood from cockles to chitons.

The long absence of kuu reminds us that gina ‘waadluxan gud ad kwaagid everything depends on everything else is so important. Every species is vulnerable, and one species can cause the whole ecosystem to lose balance. This imbalance has led to urchin barrens, large areas of the sea floor that have been grazed clean by sea urchins, eliminating kelp, other seaweed, and many other important organisms.

Over the last twenty years, many people have spotted kuu in the waters of Haida Gwaii. From north to south, there have been stories of kuu sightings told over coffee with Haida Gwaii Watchmen, on the docks with friends and at gatherings with family. Generally, all of these sightings have been thought to be roaming young, male kuus.

Kuu knowledge resources by Kii’iljuus Barbara Wilson
On Haida Gwaii, we are working with many others to study and contribute to kuu science and knowledge. Starting in 2013, the Haida Hereditary Chiefs’ Council selected two members to represent them on the Coastal Voices – Visioning the Future of Kelp Forests, Sea Otter and Humans initiative. The results can be explored online at Coastal Voices. This webpage includes films, papers, photos, and other traditional knowledge and science. Supported by the PEW Charitable Trust, the project team is finalizing a report to the Steering Committee of Hereditary Chiefs and Traditional Knowledge Holders, including representatives Sugpiaq from Alaska, Nuu-chah-nulth, Heilts’uk and Haida Nation.
One of the newest products, Enabling coexistence: Navigating predator-induced regime shifts in human-ocean systems was published in May 2020 by Dr Jenn Burt, Dr Anne Salomon, Tim Malchoff, Wii-tst-koom Anne Mack, Skil Hiilans Allan Davidson, Gitkinjuaas Ron Wilson, and myself.
This phase is ending, however, we have recently received funding to expand the project focusing on redefining sustainable operating space for coastal fisheries amid kuu recovery and climate change. This work is being guided by the Steering Committee of Hereditary Chiefs and Traditional Knowledge Holders.

Last summer, a kuu survey was conducted by representatives from the Gwaii Haanas cooperative management partners – Council of the Haida Nation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Parks Canada – to give us a clearer picture of kuu’s return to Haida Gwaii. During that survey, a raft of kuus was sighted including one female and her pup. Added on to the occasional sightings reported to the Haida Nation, Parks Canada and DFO over the years, it is safe to say kuus are slowly coming back to Haida Gwaii. During the survey in late June 2019, the group saw 13 kuu in total. Outside of Gwaii Haanas, kuu sightings have also been reported by a few keen-eyed people.    

Prior to the fur trade of the 1700s and 1800s, people coexisted with kuu for millennia, eating the same seafood resources such as clams, sea cucumbers, crab and mussels. The natural, unassisted expansion of kuu back into Gwaii Haanas represents an opportunity to examine and understand this marine mammal once again. It is important that we continue to be ecological stewards of the land and sea with a complex, intimate understanding of relationships between people and the natural world. Kuu were used by Haidas for ceremony for centuries.

The natural return of kuus back to Gwaii Haanas is expected to take decades. Overall, we expect a gradual ecological change as kuu populations grow. As kuu eat the urchins, we expect to see the return of larger, deeper and more diverse kelp forests.

Many people fear the return of kuu and the impacts it could have on species, such as abalone, we’ve worked to protect and depend on for food. The Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Management Board uses Haida principles in the Gina ‘Waadluxan KilG̱uhlG̱a Land-Sea-People Management Plan to inform its direction and Gwaii Haanas operations. The AMB and CHN technical teams consider many things when looking the return of kuu, including community impacts and benefits, cultural practices and needs, and ecosystem health.

We have a wealth of Haida marine traditional knowledge to give us an idea of how our oceans have and continue to change. These records will help us understand the changes we may see in the future as we strive to move back to a historical point of balance with kuu. This transformation represents an opportunity for renewal.

The more we know about the kuu in our waters, the better we can predict expected change and plan for a future of coexistence. Together, we are working with a kuu ecologist to develop a model of how kuu populations are expected to grow after they establish on Haida Gwaii.  In other places in BC, kuu populations are growing between 6 and 12 percent each year. We have long-term data and monitoring information about Gwaii Haanas’ and Haida Gwaii’s kelp forests, shellfish populations, and overall ecosystem biodiversity prior to kuu’s return and will continue to monitor these as they recover.

If you see kuu around Gwaii Haanas or Haida Gwaii, please report your sightings with the following information to the Gwaii Haanas Marine Team or Haida Fisheries Program:

  • Location
  • When
  • How many
  • Photo

Send the info above to: If you have more questions please contact the Gwaii Haanas Marine Team 250.559.8818 or the Haida Fisheries Program 250.626.3302.

PC: Ryan Miller/

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