Why sea otters may soon return to the San Francisco Bay

The San Francisco Bay is home to rolling fog, ferry boats, and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Soon, the bay may be home to something new: sea otters. The species, once hunted to near extinction, has now rebounded to 3,000 and conservationists are looking for new habitats to allow the population to expand further. 

Although busy with boats and located near a large city, researchers from San Francisco State University’s Estuary & Ocean Science Center have found that certain pockets of the bay are actually well suited for otters. The researchers mapped out high-risk areas of the bay, like areas with water pollution or frequent boat passage, and after ruling out these spots, the researchers were surprised to find they were left with hundreds of acres of high-quality habitat in areas.

These shallow water marshes are mostly located on the north end of the bay where there are already other protected areas nearby. Areas between parks like China Camp State Park and the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge offer little pockets of protection that are well suited to the habitat needs of otters. 

Lead study author Jane Rudebusch is optimistic about the team’s results but notes that this study is just the first step in a long process of creating a viable ecosystem for otters. She says that the next big factor to consider is food. Otters eat up to a quarter of their body weight in food each day and although a separate study found that the bay has enough food to support over 6,000 otters, researchers must ensure that these areas of nutritional abundance line up with the designated habitat areas. 

Another factor to consider is whether the otters will stay in the areas they are introduced to. Migration to less safe areas of the bay could make the reintroduction futile. Additionally, the researchers note that impact assessments on regional commercial fishing would likely be needed to get support from local governments. Many ecologists propose starting with small-scale reintroduction in controlled areas of the bay to gain insights into what a larger population would look like in the region. 

Although this research is in its early stages, the potential reintroduction of sea otters into the San Francisco Bay is an exciting prospect for local conservationists and the future of the species. We will continue to follow this story closely and provide updates on the project.

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