“First Nations are essentially in a never-ending battle of trying to assert their indigenous rights to manage resources,” says Burt. Though British Columbia was the first Canadian province to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into law in 2019, it has yet to be endorsed at a national level.
“Each time we want to have one of the things we did pre-history… we have to go to court, and it’s dragged on for decades,” says Wilson. Canada has enacted blanket laws like the Fisheries Act and Indian Act that generically undermines rights of indigenous peoples to resource sovereignty on traditional territories. Yet in regaining the recognition of resource rights and sovereignty, “each nation has to go separately”, says Wilson. “It’s like having a bully at school.”
Though a return to their once widespread global distribution is still not secured, in its ability to come back, the sea otter is a remarkable story of resilience, says Angela Doroff, scientist with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s sea otter specialist group. Sea otters have some special traits that have made a comeback possible. These, she says, include “its diversity of prey, its ability to learn and share learning”.
Shared learning, it appears, benefits otters and humans alike. From the beginning of the project, “we have all been willing to learn from each other and trust each other,” says Salomon. That positive relationship fostered between First Nations and Western scientists around study design, focus, and implementation, “is not typically done in science or resource management,” argues Salomon. “It ought to be. It needs to be,” she says.
Towards more harmonious sea otter-First Nations coexistence, Wilson sees collaborations between scientists and indigenous communities as “the kind of outside the box [solutions] that we have to do”.
From a purely species-driven ecological perspective, the sea otter boom along the British Columbian coast might seem like a simple success story. Otters were locally extinct. Now they are thriving and recolonising. But setting aside that narrow, colonialist conservation lens, a more complex picture emerges. The story of rebounding otters, notes Burt, “is a narrative where the costs and benefits differ depending on what perspective you come from”.
With First Nations increasingly leading research efforts, the next chapter of the story could benefit from a new view: that the humans that have lived alongside otters for millennia are an important thread not separate from, but woven into the rich fabric of Pacific coast ecosystems.
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Lesley Evans Ogden is @ljevanso on Twitter.