Hungry sea otters helping restore estuary at Moss Landing

ByDrew Tuma and Tim Didion KGO logo
Monday, February 5, 2024
Hungry sea otters help restore estuary at Moss Landing
Sea otters are helping to restore scenic Elkhorn Slough near Moss Landing on Monterey Bay.

MONTEREY, Calif. (KGO) -- They may wear fur coats instead of red capes. But these sea otters are still environmental super heroes, helping to restore scenic Elkhorn Slough near Moss Landing on Monterey Bay.

"So, the sea otters haven't totally stopped erosion, but they've slowed it down dramatically," says Brent Hughes is a researcher with Sonoma State, and formerly the San Jose State, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.

Teams from the lab monitor destructive species, including striped shore crabs, which have been wiping out plant roots and eroding the slough itself. Hughes says the burrowing crabs went almost unchecked, until Otters started reappearing.

The hungry Otters survive in the cold pacific waters by consuming huge amounts of prey to increase their metabolism and body heat.

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"Which translates to about 20 to 25 pounds of food that they need to consume. And crabs, especially in estuaries are just one of the more abundant and easy to grab snacks for a sea otter," Hughes explains.

The sea otters have been slowly expanding their range in Monterey Bay since being hunted nearly to extinction more than a century ago. And researchers believe there's still a lot to learn about their contribution to the marine ecosystem. Charles Endris maps the geology of the estuary for the Moss Landing Marine lab.

"I think people are going to try to apply this theory of a top predator and then ecosystem to their own environments, you know, to understand what's been lost, particularly in some other areas where you might have another top predator that has is no longer part of the scene. And so, you know, understanding the losses from that top predator and in a cascading way, I think is extremely beneficial," Endris believes.

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And there are already proposals to reintroduce Sea Otter populations further north, including the Sonoma County coast. One hope is that the otters would help control an exploding purple sea urchin population that's threatening coast kelp forest.

"And so it's the same situation, almost just a different ecosystem, where we, we would definitely look in the kelp forests would definitely benefit from having these animals around," Hughes believes.

For the time being, the Otters are busy doing their work, by essentially chowing down in the estuary waters off Monterey bay. And coming to the rescue of a critical ecosystem.

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