With only 3,000 southern sea otters left in the wild, these charming, furry clam crackers could go the way of the dodo. But a new study reveals that, should they be reintroduced into the San Francisco Bay, their numbers could triple. The problem? Great white sharks.
Sea otters aren't only the largest species of otter by sheer mass, only second in length to the Amazon’s giant river otter, but, arguably, they're one of the most recognizable marine mammals. However, California’s southern sea otter — which is a sub-species of giant sea otters, endemic to only our slice of the Pacific — is in danger of going extinct. Per KPIX, a recent study conducted by Sonoma State University, led by marine biologist Brent Hughes, shows that successfully bringing them back into the SF Bay might better their numbers.
“[A successful reintroduction] would essentially end up lifting the sea otter out of its endangered species status,” said Hughes in a press release for the study, the research published in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ — the Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences earlier this month. “For the conservation of the sea otter, this would be huge.”
The study dictates that the San Francisco Bay, itself — fun fact: it’s also our state’s largest estuarine system — could support upwards of 6,600 otters alone, a figure double that of current population counts. (Should other environmental factors in the bay improve further, i.e. denser, healthier kelp forests and an increased abundance of shellfish, that hypothesized estimate could be even larger.)
December 10, 2019
The Catch-22 as to why this has yet to happen? Simply put: Jaws... and his kin. Or, as Hughes and his colleagues put it, “the gauntlet.”
“We call it ‘the gauntlet,’” said Hughes, noting that it’s nearly impossible for these sea otters to migrate up the coast and establish residency in the San Francisco Bay, due to the growing presence of great white sharks. “Otters really can’t get past the gauntlet [of sharks].”
That said, if otter populations were able to make it into the San Francisco Bay, sans passing through the Golden Gate gauntlet, they would be able to turn the tables and establish themselves as the top predators in their respective territories. No plan nor discussion of how humans might help them safely enter into the bay was made apparent in the study.
Today we headed up the coast to Salt Point State Park in Sonoma. Made a beeline for our "sea otter spot" and there are BABIES OMG BABIES!!! 😍 Four! They caught us by surprise. We'd been in this spot for 10 minutes watching Mama dive & had no idea they were right down there. 3/ pic.twitter.com/JJqFIZmgdj— Damaris Brisco 🐌 (@Fungal_Love) June 24, 2019
In 1914, the fur trade decimated sea otter counts globally, leaving less than 50 examples of the southern sea otter left. But, through steadfast captive breeding programs, habitat restoration, and criminalizing the harvesting of sea otter fur, their numbers bounced back in the ensuing century — furthermore, should they, again, occupy the San Francisco Bay.
Image: Wikimedia Commons