A Vancouver Island First Nations group plans to hunt sea otters once again, after reaching a tentative deal with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
The deal will allow the members of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council to hunt roughly one per cent of the sea otter population in their territory on the central section of the west coast of Vancouver Island every year, which could work out to about 20 animals.
But Cliff Atleo, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said he's more concerned about the cultural meaning of the hunt than the number of animals killed.
"For us, it's not about the numbers. It's about reconnecting with the pelts worn by our chiefs, the heads of our governments," said Atleo. The thick warm fur of the sea otter pelts was once only worn by Nuu-chah-nulth chiefs, and will likely be used again for ceremonial purposes by the First Nations.
Keith Atleo, a council member of the Ahousaht First Nation, one of the bands that make up the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said the hunt is also necessary to stop the burgeoning sea otter population from decimating sea urchin and shellfish stocks, which are a valuable source of food for First Nations communities and commercial fishermen.
"Right now the sea otters are taking more than they actually need," said Atleo. "There's hundreds of sea otters down here that are multiplying year by year."
Keith Atleo expects many people will oppose the hunt, especially since sea otters are known for their cute looks, but he said the otter population is out of balance in some areas.
"We have a lot of cute children in our community that depend on the seafood, and we'd rather they have a good future. Sea otters have affected the balance in our food, traditionally and culturally," he said.
Species at risk, but not endangered
Sea otters were once hunted out of existence in British Columbia as part of the lucrative fur trade between colonialists and West Coast natives in the late 1700s and 1800s. During the 1960s and 1970s, animals from the surviving population in Alaska were reintroduced to the B.C. coast. The population is now estimated at about 3,500 in B.C. and the species is now listed as "at risk," rather than endangered.
Gwen Barlee, a policy director with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, told CBC News the conservation group supports the hunt if it is managed properly.
"In this circumstance we would support it, but again, with the qualification … that it wouldn't hurt the recovery of the population, and that it was carefully monitored by the federal government," said Barlee.
The agreement still is awaiting final approval from First Nations leaders and the federal government, and there is no word yet on when the hunt might begin.