Cuddle Party! One Grad Student’s Reflection on Her Love for Sea Otters

It is my personal opinion that this photo proves sea otters are adorable. With the pup lying on its mother’s chest, who has her paw protectively around her pup, the otters’ charisma and appeal to humans seems obvious. (Photo credit: Suzi Eszterhas/Minden Pictures)

 

Sea otters: adorable, fluffy, and their pups lay on their stomachs. Is there anything cuter? I certainly don’t think so! My love for sea otters was a random result of watching Finding Dory, where short clips of sea otters nuzzling while Dory yelled, “Cuddle party!” captured my attention and heart. This relationship remained rooted in an appreciation for their cuteness until my first quarter at UC Davis. I had just transferred from a community college and was feeling pretty overwhelmed with the transition to a four-year university. While taking an environmental studies writing course, overwhelm quickly turned to excitement when I learned just how much freedom I would have to write on a topic I loved. Naturally, I chose to write about sea otters thinking it would be fun to use the excuse of school to justify hours spent looking at cute pictures of them on the internet.

Upon actually starting the research for my paper, I was shocked to learn about all the factors plaguing a sea otter’s survival. Sea otters were nearly hunted into extinction because of a fur trade, dubbed “soft gold,” carried out by primarily white settler hunters. 99% of sea otters were killed for their fur during this time. We only find otters today in the wild because of an extensive joint effort between the U.S. and Canada that reintroduced otters into areas they once inhabited before the fur trade. Other factors, such as anthropogenic pollution, climate change, shark predation, oil spills, all threaten the otter’s fragile existence. My shock turned to grief and then anger, a very classic example of the emotional rollercoaster ride facing students of marine and environmental issues.

This one paper quickly turned into an obsession with learning about and trying to contribute to sea otter conservation efforts. I found ways to work sea otters into most of my future course assignments (a skill I still utilize in graduate school) and went out of my way to visit accredited aquariums to see my furry friends up close. Luckily, I had a patient advisor at UC Davis who worked with me to develop an undergraduate honors thesis on the use of charismatic megafauna by aquariums to further conservation efforts, and choosing sea otters as my case study was the easiest part of the process. I utilized ethnographic methods that gave me the opportunity to revisit aquariums along the West Coast and interviewed folks working at nongovernmental organizations and aquariums, and in policy arenas.

As I write this piece, I am in my final quarter at SMEA, and sea otters are still centered in my work. However, my work is no longer centered around complete and unconditional protection for sea otters. Now, I am working on a co-developed multi-faceted project with the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC), part of which actually calls for harvesting more sea otters. Because the NTC has not seen my thesis draft, I am choosing to not discuss more details of our project. Not speaking to certain aspects of my project aligns with one critical component of working with Tribes as a non-Indigenous person: Indigenous data sovereignty, where Tribes control when and how their knowledge is disseminated.

I have a transformative seminar taught by Dr. Cleo Woelfle-Erskine to thank for my shift in thinking on sea otter management from a place centered around conserving sea otters at all costs, to one that supports Indigenous-led efforts to increase sea otter harvests as a means of better protecting access to culturally-valued and healthy food sources. My first quarter at SMEA, in my haste to put off taking a marine science course, I signed up for a critical ecologies seminar. Not having the faintest idea of what this entailed, I dove in. We explored works that challenge the narrative of invasive species through an Indigenous lens, critical analyses that question the values underlying ecological restoration, and works that apply a reparative-justice model to ecosystem restoration.

Long Beach, CA – While visiting the Aquarium of the Pacific, where I interviewed their Marine Mammal Program Manager and utilized participant-observation methodology, I participated in a training session with the resident otters. Not visible in the picture is my huge grin. (Photo credit: Michael Popken)

 

By the end of the quarter, it was obvious to me that my work was rooted in a Eurocentric view of our relationship to the natural world. I was also painfully aware that my undergraduate research excluded the lived realities of Indigenous peoples along the West Coast who bear a disproportionate impact to their food sovereignty and security now that sea otters have returned. I’d only included a few pages on Indigenous perspectives in my thesis, and any discussion certainly did not account for the key contextual differences each Tribe impacted by sea otters experiences, predicated on their unique histories and cultures, which meant my work contributed to the erasure of Indigenous heterogeneity in settler-colonial contexts.

Over the next few months I worked with my advisor, Dr. P. Joshua Griffin, to develop a project that focused on contributing to work being done to acknowledge and address concerns Indigenous peoples have about how sea otters are impacting their communities. I cold-emailed a Fisheries Manager at the NTC’s fisheries department, titled Uu-a-thluk, which means “taking care of” in Nuu-chah-nulth, after finding out that the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations had sea otter-related projects. From there, we worked to co-develop a masters thesis that would aid ongoing efforts being done by the NTC and Nuu-chah-nulth Nations to protect their food sources from sea otters while exercising their right to manage their ecosystems.

During this project planning process, it was really important to me that I reflect on my role as a non-Indigenous person working in Indigenous Studies at every stage. This involved reading works by Indigenous authors, basing the project’s research questions off of expressed needs and interests by Nuu-chah-nulth Nations, and really challenging what the term “decolonizing” meant in this work, particularly by moving beyond its use as a metaphor and using it as an action and commitment. My Nuu-chah-nulth language studies allowed me to start forming relationships with Nuu-chah-nulth community members, some of whom have been directly impacted by the reintroduction of sea otters to their waters.

It quickly became clear to me that a key component of this work was harvesting sea otters. The Nuu-chah-nulth have been strategically and mindfully harvesting sea otters for centuries, predating colonialism and the settler fur trade. A select number of otters were harvested to warn other otters to stay away from Nuu-chah-nulth shellfish beds. Otter pelts were also worn by chiefs and traded with chiefs from other tribes as gestures of goodwill. Sea otter harvests were and still are rooted in historically rich stories, values, and knowledge for the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations.

Working with my partners and hearing from members of the community about how otters have impacted their food supplies via my language work, I found that the unease in my stomach felt every time harvesting was mentioned, was lessening. This made me feel guilty in many ways. After years of devotion to sea otters, was I turning my back on them? Had I prioritized my love for sea otters over the food security and sovereignty of First Nations?

Pictured here is Wii-tsts-koom, Anne Mack, a respected Hereditary Chief of the Toquaht Nation (one of the fifteen Nuu-chah-nulth Nations) whom I have had the pleasure of working with during my project. She is quoted by the Coastal Voices project, a collaborative effort between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to document the impacts of sea otters on Indigenous food sources, as saying: “It’s all about balance. The question is, ‘will the balance return while the growing population of sea otters are still under the SARA threatened list?’ When I visited Kyuquot/Cheklesaht, it was clear that otters had devastated their shellfish and the community has no access to these traditional foods. The otters and humans are imbalanced.” (Photo credit: Ilja Herb // @iljaherb)

 

I’m still working through these and many other internal questions. This evolution in my work and thinking has been emotionally tough because my love for sea otters goes further than an appreciation for their cuteness. The research I was conducting at UC Davis allowed me to involve my family and friends in this work. My mom accompanied me to my ethnographic visits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Oregon Zoo. My stepmom flew all the way to Canada with me for my ethnographic visit to the Vancouver Aquarium. My dad came to the Aquarium of the Pacific, and my stepdad to the Seattle Aquarium. My friends listened patiently to my ramblings on otters, and my coworkers would give me otter-related gifts for my birthday. Sea otters were and still are a part of my identity, not just because I have devoted a lot of time and effort into them from a research perspective, but because they are embedded into many of my fondest memories.

Existential crisis aside, my work with the NTC and Nuu-chah-nulth Nations is incredibly enriching. The opportunity to contribute to Indigneous-led research on making sea otter management and conservation more amenable and respectful of Indigenous Knowledge and lived realities is an honor, as a non-Indigenous person. Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars are working tirelessly in Canada and Alaska to protect Indigenous food sources while supporting the resurgence of Indigenous governance practices and values, all against the backdrop of climate change. Harvesting sea otters is just one facet of this work, and it is not done out of cruelty to the otter, but to ensure humans and otters can co-exist with one another. Dominant Eurocentric viewpoints that do not consider humans an integral part of the ecosystem is partly to blame for this disconnect, and racism is another big contributor.

My work has shown me that we cannot begin to conserve and protect sea otters if we don’t consider all of the complex relationships they have with humans and their environment. To partake in this work, to have my understanding of human and non-human relationships be challenged, is a gift. So, before concluding my final Currents piece as a SMEA student, I would like to thank all the professors, mentors, family members, friends, classmates and sea otters that have helped me work towards this place of acceptance. Accepting that yes, my research objectives now include increasing sea otter harvesting, but this does not diminish my love for otters.

I look forward to continuing this work at the doctoral level this fall, with my screensaver of a sleepy sea otter pup cheering me on.


** For access to journal articles cited in this piece that are not publicly available, contact Currents’ editor-in-chief:

 Almassi, B. (2017). Ecological restorations as practices of moral repair. Ethics and the Environment, 22(1), 19-40. doi: 10.2979/ethicsenviro.22.1.02

Kwaymullina, A. (2016). Research, ethics and Indigenous peoples: An Australian Indigenous perspective on three threshold considerations for respectful engagement. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 12(4), 437-449. doi: 10.20507/AlterNative.2016.12.4.8

Reo, N. J., & Ogden, L. A. (2018). Anishnaabe Aki: An indigenous perspective on the global threat of invasive species. Sustainability Science, 13(5), 1443-1452. doi: 10.1007/s11625-018-0571-4