River Otters: Back on the Bay Area Map

river otter
Have you seen a river otter? Add your sighting to the Otter Spotter map. Photo credit: sfwildlife.com.

River otters are making a come back to the Bay Area! Learn more about these amazing creatures from Megan Isadore of The River Otter Ecology Project. 

Like many kids, I fell in love with river otters through “Ring of Bright Waters,” the movie about Mij, a playful, lovable and beloved otter brought to Scotland from Iraq by Gavin Maxwell. All I wanted was a baby otter or a few, a house on the Scottish coast and lots of books.   Skip forward more years than I could wish, to 2016, and I’m researching the return of river otters in the SF Bay Area, and living on another spectacular coast. While I don’t have my own river otter, I have something better for otters and all of us – an organization that supports wetland restoration and watershed conservation, with the river otter as our enchanting ambassador.

River otters were historically present in California as far south as San Luis Obispo, but their numbers diminished by the 20th century, probably due to poor water quality, habitat loss and fur trapping. Their recent return to our local Bay Area watersheds is a sign of environmental success and a reason for faith in the efficacy of restoration efforts. Launched in 2012, The River Otter Ecology Project is the only organization in Central California to research and link river otter population recovery to watershed health and conservation.

Otter Spotters

Our programs include a citizen science “Otter Spotter” program, through which we collect information about otter sightings from all over the Bay Area. To date, we have received over 1600 sightings, ranging from the coastal Sonoma to the South Bay. It appears that river otters are expanding their range from the North and the Delta, through the East Bay and southward.

How can you contribute to our Otter Spotter map? Look for river otters in any local waterway, including rivers, bays, wetlands, ponds and even the ocean! If you see otter/s, you can input your sightings on the interactive form (in English and Spanish) on our website. We welcome photos and video. Our website has lots of photos and information on otter signs and tracks, as well as field etiquette.

Another main focus is noninvasive field research, investigating population, range, behavior and seasonal prey preferences of river otters in Marin County. We use camera traps and scat collection for DNA and health analysis to begin to understand river otters’ ecological niche. We have a loyal crew of 15 volunteers who collect smelly otter scat, service trail cameras and document all our findings.  We published our first two years of research in teh Spring 2015 issue of Northwestern Naturalist, the Journal of the Society for Northwestern Vertebrate Biology. The Return of North American River Otters, Lontra canadensis, to Coastal Habitats of the San Francisco Bay Area, California is available on our website.

You “otter” know 

We also provide education for adults and children through classroom and field presentations and participating in environmental events. Look for our presentations and festivals here.

We’re very excited about our newest program, the pilot “Hands-on High School Monitoring”, which offers high school students the opportunity to learn science and field-science concepts, teamwork and communications while expanding ROEP’s monitoring sites. Students and teachers monitor a camera site and collect and document data and samples. Our first class, led by teacher Christian Naventi and Star Academy, has been getting their feet wet with two camera traps at Las Gallinas Sanitary Ponds in San Rafael. On their first trip, they saw four otters and watched as one caught and ate a coot!

The pure joy happens in the field…the thrill of watching otter families raise their young, hunt, play, socialize, interact with other wildlife in my home watershed over months and years has been like none other. Getting up before dawn to catch sight of otters and follow them along bluffs as the sun rises, watch the pups learn to fish and even catch shorebirds, see them roll for minutes at a time along a sandy shore makes me abidingly happy. For me, it’s the privilege of a lifetime to observe my home watershed over the course of years, get to know all the life within it as my neighbors, and share that joy with others, that we all may become better stewards of our planet.

– Megan Isadore

Megan Isadore is one of the founders and Executive Director of The River Otter Ecology Project.   She is still in love with otters, books, art and everything in the natural world except mosquitoes (though she admits that perhaps they have their place too).


Top 5 Posts of 2013

As the blog editor for Save The Bay, I am continually interested in learning which stories most excite readers and inspire them to share with their friends. In 2013, readers loved positive stories about wildlife recovery, anything about Oakland (yay Oakland!), inspiring stories about Bay recovery, fascinating Bay history tales, and even stories about innovative policy solutions to pollution problems. Though these topics are incredibly varied,  one consistent theme runs through all of them:  a sense that a healthier Bay and healthier environment is always possible. As the New Year begins with this incredible sense of hope, and we look back on last year’s accomplishments and forward to next year’s, I’m pleased to share our most popular blog posts from 2013:

Sailing on SF Bay
Photo by Rick Lewis.

River Otter Sighting a Sign of Lake Merritt’s Recovery
“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.

We received a surprising indication that recent 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. Read more…

After 143 years, Oakland’s Lake Merritt Reunites with the Bay
A gem at the heart of Oakland, Lake Merritt has been many things – the nation’s first wildlife refuge, beloved waterway, sewage-filled cesspool, and even the rumored home to a lake monster. There’s one thing that Lake Merritt has never been, however – and that’s a lake.

What we now call Lake Merritt has for most of the past ten thousand years been a tidal lagoon where the waters of several East Bay creeks met the brackish tides of the Bay. Read more…

Are Butts the New Bottles? NY Proposes Cigarette Butt Redemption Program
New York Assemblymember Michael DenDekker is not one to wait around for easy answers. As a retired NYC Sanitation Worker, DenDekker knows firsthand the scale of America’s tobacco litter problem. And, as a politician, he knows firsthand the impact this litter has on our economy. His solution? Create a redemption program (similar to the current CRV for bottles and cans) to incentivize smokers to properly dispose of their butts. Read more…

Explore the Newly-Opened Trail at Bair Island
Save The Bay was thrilled to join the Redwood City community in a celebration of an important milestone in the nearly-completed restoration of Bair Island. The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge celebrated the opening of a new pedestrian bridge, and the first segment of trails accessible to the public since restoration work began in 2007. Read more…

Trash Dumps and the Hidden History of the Bay Shoreline
After the Gold Rush, a full one-third of the San Francisco Bay was diked off or filled in for development. Over three dozen trash dumps (both official and unofficial) lined the Bay shoreline. The public had access to less than six miles of shoreline, but far from being the recreational haven that the Bay Trail is today, the old shoreline greeted visitors with views of a struggling Bay choked with raw sewage and industrial pollution. Read more and view the interactive map…

Weekly Round-up: December 6, 2013

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

San Jose Mercury News 11/30/13
San Francisco Bay waters are becoming clearer, but that may mean threats from algae growth
San Francisco Bay is becoming clearer.
Decades of tidal action have finally washed away most of the mess created 150 years ago by Gold Rush miners who blasted apart hillsides in the Sierra Nevada. The result was millions of tons of mud, gravel and sand that made its way downriver and ended up in the bay, clouding its waters and coating the bottom with a level of silt up to 3 feet thick.
Most of the silt, scientists say, has now moved out to the ocean.
Read more>>


San Jose Mercury News 12/02/13
Cosco Busan’s ship’s pilot won’t get license back
Capt. John Cota, who crashed the Cosco Busan cargo ship into the Bay Bridge in 2007, causing the worst oil spill in San Francisco Bay in two decades, has lost his battle to restart his sailing career.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White dismissed Cota’s lawsuit against the Coast Guard, rejecting his attempt to force the Coast Guard to return his mariner’s license so he can sail again.
Read more>>

SF Gate 12/02/13
River otter spotted in Richmond marina
Leo Rice, a 57-year-old flight attendant for Virgin America, was on his daily constitutional Monday in Richmond’s Marina Bay when he spotted an eager river otter munching a fish in the clear bay water.
“I was just out there doing a walk and this little guy popped up and I was like WHAT?!,” Rice said. “He was not very shy at all and it was like he was not even bothered I was there.”
Rice snapped about 30 photos and took a video of the otter paddling and trying to gulp down a fish. Rice said he’s been walking Marina Bay since 2009 and has never before spotted an otter.
Read more>>

Contra Costa Times 12/01/13
Bay Bridge park would offer a new gateway to the East Bay shoreline
Forget about a giant Ferris wheel or gondola car ride in the emerging plan for a big new park by the Bay Bridge — a new gateway to the East Bay and its shoreline.
Those ride suggestions have been cut out, but still in the running for the park are a fishing pier, concert meadow, a zip line, rock climbing wall, tide pool viewing areas, kayak and sail board launch sites, a boardwalk, sandy beaches and picnic tables.
Read more>>

Petaluma 360 11/29/13
Plastic bag ban debate continues
Petaluma is on the verge of throwing out the use of plastic carryout bags by grocers and retailers for good.
City Manager John Brown said the City Council will have two options before them at Monday’s meeting: join the county’s plastic ban or draft legislation specific to Petaluma that outlaws plastic bags.
“There are some cities that have said they want to do it themselves, and other cities that said they want the county to handle it for them,” said Brown. “Now it’s the council’s time to decide.”
Read more>>

San Jose Mercury News 12/02/13
Birding adventures in northern California
If December’s constant diet of shopping, eating, shopping, football and shopping puts you in a Scroogey kind of mood, maybe it’s time for a breath of fresh air.
In Northern California, December is the season not just for consumer frenzy, but for epic wildlife shows. The midwinter phenomenon of winged migration is in full feather at refuges around the region, and by all accounts, the avian action is some of the most impressive in the nation.
Read more>>

Marin Independent Journal 12/03/13
Marin gets state cash to look at sea level rise
Marin County will use a $200,000 grant to look at how it can prevent businesses, homes and highways from being inundated by a rising sea over the next several decades.
The California Ocean Protection Council is providing the money to Collaborating on Sea-Level: Marin Adaptation Response Team, known as C-SMART. The program, overseen by the Marin County Community Development Agency, is trying to get ahead of sea level rise.
Read more>>

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.