BIO        WRITING        PHOTO        VIDEO        CONTACT        HOME

After a deadly spring, a lone otter gets away
By Nathan Welton
The Tribune
June 6, 2004


No. 289 blinked twice, took a last glance at his kennel, and bolted for the Cayucos breakers Saturday when wildlife rescuers returned him to the sea.

It was bittersweet: The clinically named southern sea otter was the only one successfully rehabilitated by volunteers from the Marine Mammal Center after a record number washed ashore in the spring.

"Releasing him is the frosting on the cake -- it's payday for us," said Sharron Jackman, volunteer with the local chapter of the environmental nonprofit. "We don't get any money, but the day you open a carrier and let an animal go back into the wild, it's all worthwhile."

She said she and other volunteers responded to about 30 stranded otters -- suffering from seizures and fevers -- in early April along the Central Coast.

The mass beachings alarmed authorities throughout the state.

"It was just heartbreaking," said P.J. Webb, another local volunteer.

Scientists with the state Department of Fish and Game now suspect the animals were infected by a parasite called Sarcocystis neurona, which causes brain inflammation and neurological disorders. It's often found in the feces of opossums, and researchers believe it's washing into the ocean and accumulating in the tissues of certain shellfish upon which otters feast.

Of the 30 strandings to which local volunteers responded about 18 animals died before rescuers arrived or could get help, said Karl Mayer with Sea Otter Research and Conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The rest were treated by the Marine Mammal Center and at the aquarium's otter unit, but only No. 289 lived, he said.

The Department of Fish and Game reported that 62 southern sea otters washed ashore in California -- mostly in Morro Bay and Pismo Beach waters -- during that month, either sick or dead.

That number was almost thrice the 10-year average and 30 percent higher than the previous record of 48, set in April of last year.

There are only about 2,500 southern sea otters left in the wild, according to Fish and Game documents, and April's deaths represent about 2 percent of the population. The animals, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, have faced increased pressure in recent years due to disease from polluted runoff and oil spills.