Porpoises, Eagles, and Otters, Oh My!

Harbor Porpoise
Harbor porpoises’ return to SF Bay are one indication of a cleaner, healthier Bay. Photo: mental.masala

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.

Volunteer with Save the Bay and help restore habitat that benefits native species and the Bay Area community as a whole.

River Otter Sighting a Sign of Lake Merritt’s Recovery

This river otter is the first seen in Lake Merritt in recent memory. Are more to come? Photo courtesy of the Rotary Nature Center and Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge.
This river otter is the first seen in Lake Merritt in recent memory. Are more to come? Photo courtesy of the Rotary Nature Center and Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge.

“Keep Oakland Fresh” bumper stickers. “Great Lakes” T-shirts, comparing the outlines of Mono Lake, Lake Tahoe and Lake Merritt. Vintage color postcards showing flocks of birds wading in clear blue waters and flying above beautiful green hills. Nearly every candidate who runs for City Council in Oakland has a picture of themselves with Lake Merritt as the backdrop. There’s a reason why: Oaklanders love Lake Merritt.

Lake Merritt isn’t just in our backyard – it’s also our front yard. It’s where the city gets together to picnic on the weekends, to walk off stress during the week. It’s home to walk-a-thons and fundraisers, the Oakland Running Festival, and Oaklavia – our version of San Francisco’s car-free Sunday Streets.

Like our city as a whole, Lake Merritt has had some tough times. It was listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as an “impaired water body” in 1999 due to poor water quality. It has had huge algae blooms and has been invaded by hordes of plastic bags and other trash. Years before that, the lake had raw sewage pumped directly into its waters. Over the past century, much of Lake Merritt’s shoreline has been filled in – its wetlands paved over and its connection to the Bay severely constrained. It still has 62 storm drains and culvertized creeks from throughout the city draining into it – bringing all the oil, trash, and other toxins from our streets directly into the lake.

I’ve written about the history of Lake Merritt before. How the lake is really a tidal lagoon, connected to the Bay, and how a group of residents, spurred by a development proposal, crafted an ambitious plan to revive the lake. These plans, funded by Oakland voters in 2002, have led to a major effort by the City of Oakland to widen the channel connecting Lake Merritt to the Bay, carve out new wetlands to help filter toxins out of the water and provide habitat for wildlife, and build much-needed new trails and walkways to benefit the hundreds of thousands of people who enjoy the lake every year.

River Otter Visits Lake Merritt for First Time in Decades

Earlier this month, we received a surprising indication that this restoration work is making a difference. For the first time in living memory, a river otter was spotted on a dock along the lake’s shoreline. River otters have been making a comeback in the Bay, but there have been only a handful of sightings south of the Bay Bridge (click here to see the River Otter Ecology Project’s map).

For those of us who work on Bay conservation, it was a big surprise to hear of a river otter in Lake Merritt. We have seen reports from the Lake Merritt Institute of the decreasing amount of trash in the lake – thanks in large part to the bans on plastic bags and polystyrene (Styrofoam) containers, as well as volunteer efforts and the installation of trash capture devices by the City. We’ve seen with our own eyes the increasing clarity of the water, and the resurgence of wildlife-supporting mudflats as the old 12th Street Bridge and associated culverts were removed, doubling the amount of water flowing between the lake and the Bay and increasing the tidal influence. We know about efforts to restore tidal marshes and even build some floating wetlands. Despite all of this, as an Oaklander and Bay restoration advocate, the river otter spotting still came as a surprise to me.

River otters eat fish, oysters, crabs and even small water birds. They are more commonly seen in fresh water areas like streams, rivers and lakes, and are also a fairly common sight in the California Delta. (Click here to read more facts about river otters). For many years, river otter sightings in the Bay have been limited to the North Bay – especially Marin County. However, more and more the otters have been spotted in other parts of the Bay – including as far south as the sloughs near the Coyote Hills in Fremont. This is the first time an otter has been spotted along the Oakland shoreline.

It’s too early to say whether more river otters will come after this one. (Please, if you see one – do not feed or bother it – keep your distance and keep your dogs away too! Report any sightings to the River Otter Ecology Project.) Whether this was just a lone visitor who stopped by on his or her way elsewhere, or the beginning of what may soon be a permanent group of otters in Lake Merritt, we don’t know.

Restoration Works: River Otters Just One of Several Wildlife Species Returning to the Bay

What we can say is that restoration works. When we restore wetlands and improve water quality – wildlife notice. River otters are not the only species making a comeback in the Bay. Leopard sharks and bat rays have returned in large numbers to restored former salt ponds. Ospreys have also taken a liking to San Francisco Bay, nesting on lampposts and port cranes, and feeding on fish in the restored Napa River and elsewhere. Harbor porpoises have also returned to the Bay after a 65 year absence, and can frequently be spotted underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. What all of these species’ recoveries have in common is a healthier San Francisco Bay.

Much work still has to be done to clean-up Lake Merritt and restore the 100,000 acres of wetlands that scientists insist we need for a healthy Bay. There are still development threats, major water pollution issues (see our latest effort to rid the Bay of the scourge of littered cigarette butts), and many parts of our shoreline still need funds and volunteers so that they can too be restored.

Yet what this lone river otter represents is the potential of not just Lake Merritt – but all of our Bay. For if Lake Merritt – once the very image of a polluted, degraded waterway – can be brought back to life and see a resurgence in wildlife, so can every other part of the Bay.

Congratulations, Oakland. Let’s keep up the momentum.