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.

Shark Week Has Arrived

Photo credit: Eric Heupel
Photo credit: Eric Heupel

Well, it’s that time of the year…time to pull out your survival kits, shark-esque attire, shark stuffed animals, and underwater creature costumes because Shark Week is officially here. Discovery Channel kicked off shark week on Sunday, dedicating seven days to these wondrous yet incredibly scary marine creatures who roam around the ocean. Even though most of us are weary of coming across sharks in the ocean, “Humans are the #1 predator of sharks, but killer whales, crocodiles, and seals have been known to eat them as well, ” according to the creators of Shark Week at Discovery Channel.

Don’t worry, you do not have to spend all week just sitting on your couch at home as you re-watch shark highlights while teaching your dog to fetch a shark toy. Instead, you can experience your own personal shark viewing out around the Bay! A group of leopard sharks have taken up residence in the former salt ponds from Hayward to Redwood City. Their inhabitance in the Bay is a positive result of better water and biotic qualities of the Bay thanks to wetland restoration work along the shoreline of the salt ponds.

Want to share your love of sharks with your friends and family? Here are some fast facts about those leopard sharks that are swimming around in the Bay:

  • Each leopard shark has its own unique spot pattern, so there are no two leopard sharks that are alike.
  • They will never munch on humans as they have tiny teeth. Instead, the leopard sharks snack on worms, small fish, herring, crabs, and other small marine creatures.
  • Some of their biggest threats include mercury pollution and fishing.
  • Leopard sharks can grow up to be 6 feet long or even larger.
  • They can reproduce up to 29 leopard shark pups in one litter.
  • Their favorite hangout spots are along the surface, and they always swim in a counterclockwise direction.

Want to learn more about sharks in San Francisco Bay? Read our blog about the Sevengill shark. You can learn even more shark trivia and facts by following the #sharkweek hashtag and @Sharkweek on Twitter and Facebook.

Weekly Roundup | July 26, 2013

Check out this week’s Weekly Roundup for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay.newspaper

San Jose Mercury News 7/20/13
Bay Area sea gull population explodes, bringing flocks of problems
In an alarming trend that has scientists scrambling for answers, the bay’s population of California Gulls has exploded from 24 birds in 1980 to more than 53,000 today. Scientists say the gulls have become a serious threat to the largest wetlands restoration on the West Coast, the effort to restore 15,100 acres of former Cargill industrial salt ponds in the South Bay back totidal marshes. A central goal of that project, which already has cost taxpayers more than $300 million, is to bring back endangered species.
Read more>>

Inside Bay Area 7/22/13
Leopard sharks flourishing in south San Francisco Bay as wetlands are restored 
A different type of shark is flourishing south of the San Mateo Bridge, one whose presence is powerful testament to the improving health of the bay: leopard sharks. UC Davis researchers are finding large numbers of leopard sharks — some as big as 6 feet long — benefiting from five years of work to restore thousands of acres of industrial salt ponds ringing the bay’s shoreline from Hayward to San Jose to Redwood City. Ducks, herons and fish are thriving in the former ponds, which are being restored to tidal marshes. But the fact that sharks are also booming is a particularly encouraging sign, scientists say.
Read more>>

Care2 Make a Difference 7/23/13
Another Reason to Hate Plastic Bags: Sea Turtles Eat Them 
A team of scientists from the University of Tokyo, led by Dr. Tomoko Narazaki, set out to try to understand the foraging behavior of loggerhead turtles. One of the videos captured by the critter cam shows a loggerhead swimming under the surface of the water. He sees a billowy floating mass and heads for it. It looks like a jellyfish, but by the time the turtle comes right up beside it, it becomes clear that it’s a plastic bag.
Read more>>

Check out our blog post about plastic bags endangering leatherback turtles in the Bay >>

New York Times 7/25/13
Louisiana Agency Sues Energy Companies for Wetland Damage
Louisiana officials filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against dozens of energy companies, hoping that the courts will force them to pay for decades of damage to fragile coastal wetlands that help buffer the effects of hurricanes on the region. “This protective buffer took 6,000 years to form,” the state board that oversees flood-protection efforts for much of the New Orleans area argued in court filings, adding that “it has been brought to the brink of destruction over the course of a single human lifetime.”
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