a deadly spring, a lone otter gets away
By Nathan Welton
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
"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
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.