Gazing out of the 18th story window of our Oakland office I struggle to visualize a time when grizzly bears roamed the shores of the Bay, otters perused local wetlands and bald eagles soared above. Has rampant degradation and urbanization pushed this vital ecosystem past the point of no return or is there still a chance for these once abundant species to reclaim their place in the Bay?
During World War II, mass industrialization drove out many large fish and marine mammals as shipyards replaced native wetlands and a plethora of unregulated pollution poured into the Bay. If this wasn’t bad enough, the military also installed a gargantuan steel net at the entrance of the Bay, making it physically inaccessible to large marine life. Following the war this once pristine estuary was well on its way to becoming nothing more than a trickle of toxic sludge. But fortunately, by the early 1960’s, a small group of individuals began to realize the importance of protecting the Bay and it was spared from destruction.
After more than 50 years of fighting development and working to protect and restore the Bay, we are seeing the return of crucial indicator species and can confidently say that recovery is alive and progressing. “Indicator species” is a common ecological term referring to a sensitive biological species whose presence or absence in an ecosystem reflects a specific environmental condition. Scientists have long used indicator species to monitor the biodiversity and overall healthiness of various ecosystems.
In 2008 a pod of harbor porpoises were spotted inside the Golden Gate for the first time in 65 years and in 2012 birders discovered the first known bald eagle nest on the San Francisco peninsula since 1915. And just last month, for the first time in the modern era, a river otter was spotted in Lake Merritt. Thanks to a flurry of recent habitat restoration and preservation these species and many others are rediscovering their long lost niche in the Bay Area.
While it’s not likely that grizzly bears will move back anytime soon, nor would most residents be thrilled to stumble upon one while taking a walk through a regional park, the recent return of river otters, bald eagles and harbor porpoises indicates a vital improvement in the water quality of the Bay and the overall health of its surrounding habitats.
Despite the Bay Area’s tumultuous past, it remains one of the top 6 most ecologically diverse places in the nation and is included in Conservation International’s list of Earth’s 25 biodiversity hot spots. We have made unbelievable progress in the last 50, but the fight against habitat degradation is far from over.