Xaayda Gwaay.yaay Kuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lxa The Sea Otters Us Return

Published by info@haidanation.com on

Photo: Thierry Boyer

Submitted by Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Co-Chairs Suudahl Cindy Boyko and Nang Kaa Klaagangs Ernie Gladstone
This article includes Xaayda kil.

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. Kuu is a keystone predator and their absence from the marine ecosystem following the fur trade led to dramatic underwater changes. Without kuu to eat them, sea urchin numbers exploded. Over time, urchins ate much of the kelp, other seaweeds and small attached organisms. This led to “urchin barrens” where there once were lush kelp forests.

The story of kuu reminds us that gina ‘waadluxan gud ad kwaagid everything depends on everything else.

Over the last 20 years, from north to south, stories of kuu sightings have been shared over coffee with Haida Gwaii Watchmen, on the docks with fishermen and at gatherings with family. Generally, these sightings were thought to be roaming, young male kuu.

Summer 2019 brought more news. A total of 13 kuu, alone or in small groups including one female and her pup, were spotted on a survey by representatives of Gwaii Haanas’ cooperative management partners: Council of the Haida Nation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Parks Canada. It’s now safe to say kuu are slowly coming back to Haida Gwaii.

We coexisted with kuu for generations, eating the same seafoods: urchins, clams, crab, mussels and abalone. The 150-year absence of kuu, though dramatic in impacts, is only a short chapter in our long relationship with kuu. The return of kuu to Gwaii Haanas is an opportunity to get re-acquainted with this marine mammal and a challenge to forge a modern relationship with kuu – one based on principles of giid tlljuus balance and gina ‘waadluxan gud ad kwaagid.

The natural return of kuu throughout Gwaii Haanas is expected to take decades. As kuu populations grow, we expect to see linked changes in the ecosystem. Over time, as kuu eat urchins, kelp forests are expected to grow larger, deeper and more diverse. Habitat for kelp-associated species like rockfish, juvenile herring, juvenile black cod, salmon and abalone should be enhanced.

Kuu knowledge resources by Kii’iljuus Barbara Wilson
For the last seven years, we have been working with many others to study and contribute to kuu science and knowledge. In 2013, the Haida Hereditary Chiefs’ Council selected two members – Skil Hiilans Allan Davidson and Gitkinjuaas Ron Wilson – 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, Heiltsuk 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, Gitkinjuaas, and Kii’iljuus.

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.

The return of kuu also brings many questions. Will their return threaten our food sources by reducing the seafood we rely on? Will shellfish like abalone continue to recover? What is the role of traditional kuu management in our path forward? The questions and answers are complex. The AMB and technical teams from CHN, Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, will consider many aspects of kuu’s return to Haida Gwaii, including community impacts and benefits, cultural practices and needs, and ecosystem health.

We have a wealth of Haida marine traditional knowledge to draw on that will help us understand the changes we may see and guide us in our renewed coexistence with kuu. We have research and monitoring information about fish, kelp forests, shellfish, and overall ecosystem biodiversity from Gwaii Haanas, Haida Gwaii, as well as other coastal areas where kuu have already re-established. All this knowledge will help us understand what ecosystem changes to expect as kuu return and recover.

The more we know about kuu in our waters, the better we can consider likely changes and plan for a future of coexistence. This is why we want to tell you about Xaayda Gwaay.yaay Kuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lxa.

Together with many organizations and Haida Gwaii communities, the AMB will gather and weave together knowledge about kuu, marine ecosystems and human use and values as we embark on a new project. Using traditional knowledge, local knowledge and scientific data, Xaayda Gwaay.yaay Kuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lxa will develop tools such as interactive computer models of the kuu ecosystem that allows us to explore the impacts of kuu returning to Haida Gwaii. We will be able to explore what could happen under different management strategies or changing environmental or climate conditions. We will use these tools to examine impacts to traditional, recreational and commercial fisheries during this process as well.

Xaayda Gwaay.yaay Kuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lxa The Sea Otters Us Return project partners 

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 

Importantly, this project is also about partnerships and collaboration. By bringing together the diverse interests, expertise and knowledge of everyone involved, we will develop key strategies to inform decision-making in Gwaii Haanas and Haida Gwaii. As the AMB considers the return of kuu and possible future management scenarios, the group’s overall approach will follow principles grounded in Haida culture and ecosystem-based management. Our guiding principles of giid tlljuus, gina ‘waadluxan gud ad kwaagid, and ‘laa guu ga kanhllns responsibility will continue to move us forward.

If you see kuu around Gwaii Haanas or Haida Gwaii, report your sightings with the following information to the Gwaii Haanas Marine Team or Haida Fisheries Program: Date, location, number of kuu, and a photo. Send these details to: <pc.amb.pc@canada.ca> 

If you have more questions please contact the Gwaii Haanas Marine Team 250.559.8818 or the Haida Fisheries Program 250.626.3302. 

This article is published in the recent Winter Haida Laas. View or download the full edition here.


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