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

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.

 In 2020 Gwaii Haanas and the Council of the Haida Nation initiated X̱aayda Gwaay.yaay Ḵuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lx̱a The Sea Otters Return to Haida Gwaii project to together, explore how to approach the return of ku•kuu.

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

About ku.kuu sea otters in Gwaii Haanas

New What we’ve accomplished 2020-2023 and what’s next 

Ḵu•Ḵuu’s sea otters’ return to Haida Gwaii brings many questions, hopes, concerns and a mix of opinions in the community. In mid-2020 the Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas launched a project with a diverse project team to document, analyze and model ecological, social and cultural values that ḵu•ḵuu’s return is expected to change in coastal ecosystems. With decades to plan while there are still few ḵu•ḵuu, a key project goal was to start re-learning how we can live together with ḵu•ḵuu as neighbours by drawing on our collective knowledge, perspectives and values related to ḵu•ḵuu and the coastal ecosystems that we depend on. Looking back on the last 3 years of work, we accomplished much of what we set out to do.

© Parks Canada / C. Epners
© Parks Canada / C. Epners

Listening and sharing

Háwʹaa Haawa Thanks to everyone who participated in our community engagement activities throughout this project. We received much appreciated feedback on the two community values survey 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?

Four place-based future scenarios with stories and illustrations were co-developed by a largely local working group for remote and in-person focus group discussions in Skidegate and Old Masset. Virtual community presentations in 2021 and 2022 and an in-person ḵu•ḵuu community forum on March 4, 2023, allowed us to share knowledge and encourage discussion. We looked to learn from our neighbours in other coastal communities who already live with ḵu•ḵuu. Through multiple speakers series events, Dr. Dolly Garza, Howard Humchitt, and Wickaninnish Cliff Atleo Sr. shared their perspectives and experiences of living with ḵu•ḵuu in Sitka Alaska, Heiltsuk and Nuu-chah-nulth territories, respectively. Recordings of these talks, as well as past newsletters and articles, are available online.

© Parks Canada / C. Epners

Building a Planning Tool Together

Building on past and present community input and discussions, and an in-person technical workshop in May 2022, the project team co-developed an interactive ḵu•ḵuu ecosystem model for Haida Gwaii. This involved compiling and analyzing a lot of existing data and information ḵu•ḵuu population growth and range expansion data from other parts of BC as well as Southeast Alaska informed a dynamic Haida Gwaii ḵu•ḵuu population model. This model attempts to show habitat and sea otter population dynamics. Habitat suitability maps for different species, like red urchins and kelp, allowed us to link observations from subtidal survey sites to ḵu•ḵuu distribution over all Haida Gwaii. Read more about ḵu•ḵuu’s relationship to red urchins and kelp here. Data taken from the same sites over time for focal species such as red urchins, geoducks, and intertidal clams, etc. as ḵu•ḵuu moved into those areas, provided data to model ḵu•ḵuu effects over time. All of this data allowed researchers to write computer code to build models of ecosystem connections that can show the expected outcomes of ḵu • ḵuu return to Haida Gwaii on different ecological and cultural values through time.

Feedback from communities informed the development of priority management scenarios. An initial set of models is now mapped and connected with various data points through a web-based interface. This planning tool can now be used by Haida Gwaii leadership for informing eventual decisions on how to manage coastal ecosystems now and into the future, as ḵu•ḵuu numbers grow. Participants at the community forum on March 4, 2023, had a chance to see and talk about the maps and graphs generated by this model. Some expected outcomes were presented, showcasing different management scenarios on ḵu•ḵuu, kelp, rockfish, red urchin, geoduck, and intertidal clams.

This is only the end of the beginning. There is much more that can be done to refine this model and add additional focal species and values to be considered. The work of planning how we want to live with ḵu•ḵuu as neighbours is just starting and this is a planning tool intended to help those efforts!

Please continue to report sightings!

Reporting all ḵu•ḵuu sightings remains extremely valuable and contributes to long-term data that will help us understand how ḵu•ḵuu populations are changing on Haida Gwaii.

How to submit sightings:

Email seaotter@haidanation.com with details about your ḵu•ḵuu sighting (including location and any images)

Háwʹaa•Haawa Thanks

Although April 2023 marks the official close of X̱aayda Gwaay.yaay Ḵuugaay Gwii Sdiihltl’lx̱a project, it also marks the beginning of the next chapter in this story. Over the next few decades on Haida Gwaii, we will increasingly encounter ḵu•ḵuu in our daily lives. The conversations about how we want to live with ḵu•ḵuu as neighbours now and into the future will need to continue. We will continue to monitor ḵu•ḵuu’s return and how they are changing the environment. The work of the past three years will help shape how we move forward in co-existence with ḵu•ḵuu.

  • Háwʹaa•Haawa to YOU, the community who provided valuable insight into community values and concerns, who came out to listen, share and ask questions, who participated in focus groups and who shared personal knowledge and experiences. Your contributions are greatly appreciated and have made this project a success.
  • Háwʹaa•Haawa to Dr. Dolly Garza , Howard Humchitt, Wickaninnish Cliff Atleo Sr. for sharing your community experiences and perspectives around living with ḵu•ḵuu. Your knowledge and the opportunity to learn from your lived experiences are invaluable gifts.
  • Háwʹaa•Haawa to the knowledge holders, researchers and modelers for sharing your experiences, data and knowledge, and for working with us to transform a vast amount of knowledge into a powerful tool that can inform decision-making.
  • Háwʹaa•Haawa to Gwaii Haanas, Council of Haida Nation and project team members for your vision, persistent hard work and seeing the project through.
  • Háwʹaa•Haawa to the kuuniisii, Haida Gwaii and ḵu•ḵuu for helping to guide us in re-learning how to live with ḵu•ḵuu as neighbours.

Kuu Spring Newsletter 2023 (PDF, 4.59MB)

About ku.kuu sea otters in Gwaii Haanas

Before the fur trade: co-existence

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

Haida and ḵu•ḵuu lived together as neighbours eating some of the same seafoods, including urchins, clams, crabs, mussels and abalone. Ḵu•Ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu from Haida Gwaii waters in the early 1800s. The return of ḵu•ḵuu marks another important point in the long-standing relationship.

Ḵu•Ḵuu in bull kelp ©Niisii Guujaaw
Bull kelp - SG̱idG̱ang.Xaal Shoshannah Greene

A keystone species

Ḵu•Ḵuu’s return is significant. Ḵu•Ḵuu are a cultural and ecological keystone species. They can radically change the local places where they live.  Among the many coastal habitats they change, ḵu•ḵuu 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, ḵu•ḵuu, urchins, herring, abalone, salmon, and many others are all interconnected through kelp forests. Gina ‘waadlux̱an gud as kwaagid everything depends on everything else.

Bull kelp forest. © Lynn Lee
Urchins eating kelp. © Lynn Lee

Changes to the ecosystem: when Ḵu•Ḵuu disappeared

Ḵu•Ḵuu’s absence following the marine fur trade led to dramatic underwater changes. Ḵu•Ḵuu are one of the very few predators of large red sea urchins, a prickly kelp eater. Without ḵu•ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu eat, such as abalone, grew in numbers and changed their behaviour, adapting to the ecosystem without ḵu•ḵuu.

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 ḵu•ḵuu’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 ḵu•ḵuu about how to live with ḵu•ḵuu as neighbours. The more we know about ḵu•ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu’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 ḵu•ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu. We can draw on that learning from the past while building our present and future relationships with ḵu•ḵuu. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to shape how we move forward in co-existence with ḵu•ḵuu. Now is the time to start planning for the return of ḵu•ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu on Haida Gwaii can look like now and into the future. It also focuses on bringing together existing knowledge about how ḵu•ḵuu have affected other ecosystems including human communities. We will apply that learning to help us direct how we want our relationship with ḵu•ḵuu 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. © 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 ḵu•ḵuu ecosystem models. The team is documenting, analyzing and modelling ecological, social, and cultural changes that ḵu•ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu . The resulting Haida Gwaii ḵu•ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu, 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 ḵu•ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu's return

The return of ḵu•ḵuu brings many questions:

  • Will shellfish like abalone continue to recover?
  • Will more kelp bring more fish?
  • Will ḵu•ḵuu's return threaten or benefit our food security?
  • What is the role of traditional ḵu•ḵuu 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 ḵu•ḵuu. 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 ḵu•ḵuu have established.

The Council of the Haida Nation and Gwaii Haanas’ approach to ḵu•ḵuu'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 Giid tlljuus balance,  Gina ‘waadlux̱an gud ad kwaagid interconnectedness, ‘Laa guu ga ḵanllns 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.

© Stef Olcen

Timeline: Haida and Ḵu•Ḵuu on Haida Gwaii

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.

Kuu Timeline (PDF, 4.59 MB)

    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:

© Niisii Guujaaw


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)

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


To learn more about this project please contact Nadine Wilson at nadine.wilson@pc.gc.ca or Lynn Lee at lynn.lee@pc.gc.ca

Council of the Haida Nation 

Kuu Summer Newsletter 2022 (PDF, 1MB)

Kuu Spring Newsletter 2023 (PDF, 4.59MB)

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