Why the return of Anacostia River’s apex predator, the otter, is a good sign

While the water quality of the Anacostia River is not held in high regard by many, some advocates and environmentalists say they have seen a number of exciting changes.

First, they say when they’re out in their boats, they can see their propellers in the water. That wasn’t the case only a short time ago.

Another positive sign is the increasing number of river otter sightings. Cameras set up at different points of the river are also snapping pictures of them.

Recently river otters have been spotted along the Anacostia’s Northwest Branch near Heurich Park in Hyattsville. They’ve also been spotted along the kayak docks at Bladensburg’s Waterfront Park and near Kingman Island in Northeast D.C.

Members of the Anacostia Watershed Society say the otter sightings are a good omen for the river because of their diet of mostly fish and crawfish, which accumulate a lot of the river pollutants in their bodies.

“The otter being the apex predator is the one that gets all that pollution so, if the system is too polluted, the otter simply cannot make it,” said Jorge Bogantes Montero, a Natural Resources Specialist with the AWS.

Essentially, the return of the otter is a sign that the river may be in recovery.

A camera along the Anacostia River captured this image of what looks to be a slightly startled river otter. (Courtesy of the Anacostia Watershed Society)

Catfish that have recently been caught in the river are also seeing lower levels of pollutants. The mussel population is also starting to grow, and that’s another source of food for the otters.

In fact, cracked shells and other signs have been found in otter feces (scat) near the kayaks stored at Bladensburg not that long ago.

“You’re going to see a lot of scat on the docks, floating docks and marinas. It’s relatively easy to tell because you’re going to see a lot of fish scales and crawfish shells in the scat and no other mammal will have that kind of poop,” Montero said.

Recently river otters have been spotted along the Anacostia’s Northwest Branch near Heurich Park in Hyattsville. (Courtesy of the Anacostia Watershed Society)

He said more beavers and their dams have been spotted along stretches of the Anacostia, which benefits the river ecologically. And of course, people enjoying a trail along the Anacostia have also seen wild turkeys up close — closer than they would have preferred even.

Spotting an otter is a bit harder. While there’s a chance to see one at any time of day, otters are most likely to be out in the evening or early morning hours, Montero said.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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