Protecting California’s Wetlands with Sea Otters

In the 1800s, the animals were hunted almost to extinction. Fur was purchased by people. There were once about 2,000 or so left. Most of them resided in Alaska’s coastal seas. However, the animals began to heal by the 1980s. In northern California, three projects contributed to their population growth. Initially, it was forbidden for hunters to murder otters. The wetlands where the otters had once resided were then restored through an environmental effort. At last, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California started rearing otters and releasing them back into the wild. Elkhorn Slough is a coastal region where the animals have returned over the past forty years or so. It lies halfway between San Francisco and Monterey.


Brent Hughes is researching the effects of the otters’ reappearance on the ecosystem. He works at nearby Sonoma State University as a marine ecologist. His report was just published in the scientific journal Nature. A tidal estuary is a type of wetland that Hughes and his team examined. The otters, the researchers discovered, provide a function that prevents the area from eroding, or wearing away. According to Hughes, the striped shore crab is a harmful crustacean that the otters eat. The roots of pickleweed, a type of marsh grass, are bit by the crabs as they burrow through the sand and muck. When there is coastal flooding, pickleweed keeps the soil in place.


Researchers looked at erosion rates going all the way back to the 1930s for this new study. The researchers can better comprehend the effects of sea otters returning to the area because to the previous data. Additionally, the fences that the researchers erected kept the otters out of specific locations for a period of three years. The scientists have found that the soil degraded far more quickly in the fenced-off portion of the estuary. Otters “don’t completely reverse erosion; rather, they slow it down to natural levels,” according to Hughes. One of several studies that examines the effects of a top predator returning to a region after a protracted absence is the otter study.

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