West Coast
A sea otter and her pup float in California’s Monterey Bay. Otters have made a huge recovery in the century after the fur trade nearly wiped them out. Now, conservationists are considering reintroducing them to estuaries. Photo by Suzi Eszterhas/Minden Pictures

CA - We’ve Been Systematically Underestimating Sea Otters’ Historical Habitat

Estuaries once harbored thousands of otters, and now conservationists want to extend recovery efforts to California’s largest estuary: San Francisco Bay.

Before the fur trade wiped out the majority of California’s sea otters, thousands inhabited the west coast’s largest estuary—San Francisco Bay. Though the otters there went extinct by the mid-1800s, other populations managed to survive by taking refuge along the state’s rugged coastline. In isolated pockets, those survivors found safe havens, says Tim Tinker, a wildlife biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Hundreds of years later, conservationists helping the sea otters recover focused their efforts on where they found those remnant populations, overlooking the estuaries they once called home.

“That unconscious bias has affected everything. It’s affected where we do research and where we think otters will be,” says Tinker. Now, those recovery efforts are being re-evaluated.

It is well known that otters perform an important role in coastal kelp forests by keeping herbivorous sea urchins in check. According to a new study coauthored by Tinker, they have an equally important job in estuaries. The finding suggests that reintroducing sea otters to estuaries could benefit those ecosystems.

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