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

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site

Ḵu;Ḵuu have returned to Haida Gwaii


How to pronounce X̱aayda Gwaay.yaay Ḵuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lx̱a in X̱aayda Kil


This translates to "The Sea Otters Return to Haida Gwaii"

Sea Otter diving - Yahl ‘Adaas Cori Savard

Ḵu•Ḵuu 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. Ḵu•Ḵuu are returning on their own, re-establishing themselves in their historic home ranges. Ḵu•Ḵuu have now re-established in Gwaii Haanas.  It’s expected to take decades for numbers to increase, so now is the time to learn, consider future impacts, and build plans.

Gwaii Haanas is working collaboratively with the Council of the Haida Nation to explore how to approach the return of ḵu•ḵuu. Together in 2020,Gwaii Haanas andThe Council of the Haida Nation initiated X̱aayda Gwaay.yaay Ḵuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lx̱a The Sea Otters Return to Haida Gwaii project.

Keep reading to learn more about this important initiative.  Similar content is also available on the Council of the Haida Nation website.  

Before the fur trade: co-existence

Haida and uuu have a long history together.  Before the marine fur trade in the 1700s and 1800s, Haida and uuu 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 uuu 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 uuu from Haida Gwaii waters in the early 1800s. The return of uuu marks another important point in the long-standing relationship.

Ḵu•Ḵuu in bull kelp ©Niisii Guujaaw

Ḵu•Ḵuu’s return is significant

Bull kelp - SG̱idG̱ang.Xaal Shoshannah Greene

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, uuu 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, uuu, urchins, herring, abalone, salmon, and many others are all interconnected through kelp forests. Gina ‘waadluan gud as kwaagid everything depends on everything else.

Bull kelp forest. © Lynn Lee

Changes to the ecosystem: when Ḵu•Ḵuu disappeared

Urchins eating kelp. © Lynn Lee

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 uuu 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 uuu eat, such as abalone, grew in numbers and changed their behaviour, adapting to the ecosystem withoutuuu.

Red urchin barrens. ©Lynn Lee

Possible changes to the ecosystem: when Ḵu•Ḵuu return

Giant kelp - SG̱idG̱ang.Xaal Shoshannah Greene

Ḵu•Ḵuu’s return, just as their earlier disappearance, will bring changes to the coastal ecology of Haida Gwaii. Learning from other places where ḵu•ḵuu has returned, we expect the ḵu•ḵuu population to grow slowly over the next few decades. Ḵu•Ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu 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.

Ḵu•Ḵuu 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. Ḵu•Ḵuu will eat intertidal and subtidal clams like butter clams and geoducks, and reduce the number and size of clams where ḵu•ḵuu forage. In the intertidal area, their foraging will be limited to higher tides when they have enough water to dive and dig.

Juvenile rockfish in a kelp forest. ©Emily Adamczyk 
Rockfish - SG̱idG̱ang.Xaal Shoshannah Greene

In other parts of the coast where other First Nations and ḵu•ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu could both get enough food to eat while keeping a healthy and balanced ecosystem. Ḵu•Ḵuu 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.

Bull kelp. © 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 uuu’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 uuu about how to live with uuu as neighbours. The more we know about uuu 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 uuu’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 uuu 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 uuu. We can draw on that learning from the past while building our present and future relationships with uuu. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to shape how we move forward in co-existence with uuu. Now is the time to start planning for the return of uuu to Haida Gwaii.

Sea otter resting - Yahl ‘Adaas Cori Savard


Planning together for our future co-existence with Ḵu•Ḵuu

Bull kelp. © Emily Adamczyk

Gwaii Haanas and the Council of the Haida Nation are working together to explore ways to approach the return of uuu through 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 uuu on Haida Gwaii can look like now and into the future.  It also focuses on bringing together existing knowledge about how uuu have affected other ecosystems including human communities. We will apply that learning to help us direct how we want our relationship with uuu 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. 

Click HERE to learn more about upcoming community engagement sessions and ways to share your knowledge and opinions.

Bull kelp. © Clint Johnson


Building ḵu•ḵuu ecosystem models

Nudibranch in eelgrass. © Emily Adamczyk

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 Haida Gwaii uuu ecosystem models. The team is documenting, analyzing and modelling ecological, social, and cultural changes thatuuu 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 uuu. The resulting Haida Gwaii uuu 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 uuu 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 uuu, 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 uuu 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.

Many questions about ḵuḵuu’s return

The return of uuu brings many questions. 

Will shellfish like abalone continue to recover?

Will more kelp bring more fish?

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

What is the role of traditional uuu 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 uuu. 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 uuu have established. 

The Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas’ approach to uuu’s return will follow principles grounded in Haida culture and ecosystem-based management and will be guided by the Gwaii Haanas Gina ‘waadluan KiluhlG̱uhlG̱a Land-Sea-People Management Plan. The guiding principles of Giid tlljuus balance,  Gina ‘waadluan gud ad kwaagid interconnectedness, ‘Laa guu ga anllns responsibility, Yahguudang respect, Gina k’aadang.nga gii uu tll k’anguudang –Seeking Wise Counsel, Isda ad dii gii isda –Giving and Receiving will continue to move us forward.

Haida and Ḵu•Ḵuu on Haida Gwaii - a timeline 

Haida and ḵu•ḵuu co-existed for millennia. The 150-year absence of ḵu•ḵuu from Haida Gwaii is only a short chapter in our long relationship with ḵu•ḵuu.
10,000 years before present
• Haida and ḵu•ḵuu coexisted on Haida Gwaii.
• The presence of people, hunting and other activities kept ḵu•ḵuu away from important food harvesting areas.
• Other strategies like clam gardens likely helped to maintain clam harvesting areas.

Late 1700s & 1800s
• Ḵu•Ḵuu were hunted intensively during the maritime fur trade.
• Ḵu•Ḵuu became ecologically extinct in local waters.
• Guudangee•Guuding.ngaay and other shellfish started to increase.
• Kelp forests began to decline.
• Guudangee•Guuding.ngaay and other shellfish dramatically increased.
• Kelp forests continued to decline, impacting rockfish, herring, and salmon.
Late 1960s-early 1970s
• Ḵu•Ḵuu were re-introduced from the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, to many places along the west coast, including the west coast of Vancouver Island, near Kyuquot
• Individual male ḵu•ḵuu sometimes spotted around Haida Gwaii
• First sightings of moms and pups in Haida Gwaii waters in over 100 years.
• Five ḵu•ḵuu, including at least one mom and pup pair, spotted in Gwaii Haanas.
• First interactive ḵu•ḵuu population growth model for Haida Gwaii developed.
• 13 ḵu•ḵuu observed, including one mom and her pup, during a collaborative CHN-DFO-PCA survey in Gwaii Haanas.
• The Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas agree that ḵu•ḵuu have re-established themselves around Haida Gwaii.
• X̱aayda Gwaay.yaay Ḵuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lx̱a The Sea Otters Return to Haida Gwaii project begins. Focusing community conversation about what co-existing with ḵu•ḵuu on Haida Gwaii can look like now and into the future.

• The Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas host a number of events to discuss and plan for a growing population of ḵu•ḵuu.
• Haida citizens and residents of Haida Gwaii share their values, knowledge and views about ḵu•ḵuu and coastal ecosystems to inform management planning.
• Communities explore the gains and losses in future scenarios for coexistence with ḵu•ḵuu on Haida Gwaii.
• The Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas work with many partners to integrate knowledge of ḵu•ḵuu into kuuecosystem models.
Expectations for 2024 and beyond
• Ḵu•Ḵuu population in Gwaii Haanas expected to grow slowly over decades
• Small groups of ḵu•ḵuu are expected to establish themselves in areas of Gwaii Haanas with available food and good site conditions
• Kelp forests will grow larger, deeper and more diverse
• Urchin and shellfish populations decline
• Habitat for kelp-associate species like rockfish, juvenile herring, juvenile black cod salmon and abalone enhanced.
• Knowledge of ḵu•ḵuu and coastal ecosystems continues to be compiled and used in planning.
• Ḵu•Ḵuu ecosystem models is used as a tool to explore management scenarios and inform decision making.
• Management actions implemented by Haida Gwaii decision-makers.

Many Good People Working Together

This project is guided by the 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:

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


Bull kelp - hlḵyama • hlkáam
Giant kelp - ngaal • ngáal
Red sea urchin - guudangee.guuding.ngaay
Purple sea urchin - daws styuu • stuu xasáa
Green sea urchin - styuu • stuu
Abalone - G̱aalG̱ahlyan • gálgahl’yaan
Rockfish - Sgaadang.nga • k’aalts’idaa (unidentified rf)
Kelp greenling - kij • kiijii
Lingcod - Skaynang • skáynaan
Eelgrass - t’aanuu • t’anúu
Intertidal clams - k’yuu • k’yúu
Horse clams - k’yuu ‘yuwG̱an • skáw
Geoduck clams - skaw • stan
Sea cucumber - G̱iinuu • yáanuu
Octopus - naaw • nuu
Salmon - chiina • chíin
Herring - iinang • íinang


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