The long-gone sea otter might be coming back to the Bay Area — or at least, Sonoma County.
Even though the species was hunted to near-local extinction throughout the 1800s for their pelts, they were previously a crucial link in the San Francisco Bay’s food chain, according to Bay Nature. They are natural predators of urchins, which eat kelp, so they kept the kelp population strong and steady so it could provide a home for species from tiny invertebrates to harbor seals.
The reintroduction of otters has been discussed by Bay Areans for years, but it might be getting even closer to becoming a reality: Sonoma County politicians and tribal leaders met Friday to discuss the feasibility, as the Chronicle first reported. Some are planning on adding a policy to bring back otters to the region’s Local Coastal Program, which manages the California Coast.
The proposal’s timing is key: In the past decade, sea urchins have devoured the kelp along hundreds of miles of the Sonoma and Mendocino Coast — razing the kelp forest. Climate change is also a factor, as marine heatwaves and mass sea star die-offs have contributed to the disappearance of 95% of California’s kelp stands in the last 10 years, according to Bay Nature.
A population of about 3,000 sea otters still lives off the coast between San Mateo County and Santa Barbara County — but scientists don’t consider that a “full population” for the Bay. In the past, there were likely 10,000 sea otters in the region, according to the Chronicle. A 2019 paper from marine biologists found that today’s estuarine habitats in the entire San Francisco Bay could support upwards of 6,000 sea otters.
“This is an opportunity to turn the tide to proactively work on restoration,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said at the meeting, as the Chronicle reported.
Still, it will be up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as to whether the plan is officially approved and otters are slowly reintroduced. Even if/when they are, scientists say it could take decades for their populations to reach sizeable numbers.
Many local fisherman are reportedly opposed to the idea, as otters eat many of the same species that they capture, like sea urchins and abalone.
Another potential roadblock? Sharks. It could be practically impossible for sea otters to migrate on the coast off of the San Francisco Bay, due to the climate change-fueled increasing presence of great whites.
Feature image via Unsplash/Kedar Gadge.