Bringing you stories about California's wildlife, the threats they face, and the value they bring us.

Hooray! Otter Pops Up in Downtown Oakland

Oaklanders have been working for decades to clean up and restore Lake Merritt, the tidal lagoon in the heart of the East Bay city's downtown that's home to the nation's oldest official wildlife sanctuary. And that work got a serious vote of confidence earlier this month: For the first time in many decades, a river otter was seen on the shores of the 155-acre lake.

The otter's visit, recorded and photographed by the Rotary Nature Center at the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge, also marks only the fourth documented river otter sighting south of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge since a citizen science project launched to track the aquatic mammals.

The Lake Merritt sighting offers serious encouragement to fans of Lake Merritt's restoration, and those who've been working to make the San Francisco Bay watershed friendlier to wildlife.

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River otters (Lontra canadensis) have been seen more frequently in freshwater wetlands in Northern California over the last few decades, but having them turn up south of Marin County or the Sacramento Delta has been a rarity. No one knows whether this Lake Merritt visit is a fluke or the first of many sightings, but habitat restoration activists are taking it as a good sign, and not just for the otter.

"What we can say is that restoration works," enthused Save the Bay's Campaign Manager Josh Sonnenfeld in a blog post about the sighting.

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.

In 2002 Oakland voters approved funding of a massive project to restore the lake, originally an arm of San Francisco Bay connected by a 600-foot-wide slough to the rest of the bay. Urban development and wetland reclamation since the 1860s diminished the lake's fringing wetlands and cut off its connection to the tides. By the time yours truly lived in the neighborhood for most of the 1990s, Lake Merritt was a stagnant, brackish lagoon whose Bay connection was limited to a pair of shallow culverts.

In the years since, though, with funding from voter-approved measure DD, Oakland has worked to remedy some of the ill effect the city's infrastructure has had on the lake. Perhaps most importantly, a bridge that carried East 12th Street over the mouth of the lake was removed, opening up a 100-foot tidal channel that doubled the daily tidal flow into and out of the lake.

That channel was opened up in February, and locals have since noted the lake's water is much cleaner. A plastic bag ban has also done its part to keep the lake cleaner, as have decades of campaigns to warn Oaklanders against dumping chemicals in storm drains and a related effort to publicize the urban creeks that feed the lake.

That work is paying off: Fish, crabs and crayfish, and birds have been finding their way to the Lake in increasing numbers, making the place even more attractive for animals like river otters that eat such things.

It's a little bit of good news due to the hard work of a whole city full of people. We can make a difference for California's wildlife, even in our cities. It's enough to bring a tear to this former Lake Merritt neighbor's eye.

The Lake Merritt otter, captured in pixels | Photo: Rotary Nature Center | Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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