MONTEREY, Calif. -- 2010 was a hard year for California's Central Coast otters.
A preliminary report from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that 304 otters were found dead along the coast between Half Moon Bay and Santa Barbara, according to the Monterey, Calif.-based Otter Project.
When compared to the total spring count of 2,700 otters, 11.2 percent dead may not seem catastrophic, especially when compared to the 8 percent found dead in 2009. However, the jump from 232 dead otters in 2009 to 304 in 2010, makes scientists concerned for the species.
"Young pups and females died this year; if pups are dying, you have no future, and if females are dying you have no reproductive future," said
Steve Shimek, chief executive of the Otter Project. "This suggests that we don't have a trend that will turn around too easily."
Though there was a peak of more than 3,000 otters in 2007 and there are a variety of causes for their deaths, what's unusual to Shimek is the number dying from disease.
"The number of diseases in the ocean that have washed from the land has increased," said Shimek. "Think of it as an immune-suppressed otter swimming in a soup of disease."
The damage does not have to be irreversible though, he says. Becoming aware of and reducing the amount of chemicals and agricultural nutrients we discharge into storm drains, which head straight into the ocean and make it toxic for otters, is the first step.
"It's a good news, bad news situation," said Shimek. "In the bigger sense, at the turn of the 19th century, otters were thought to be extinct.... Today, there are 2,700. But we need to do a much better job of understanding our impact on them."
The southern sea otter's range stretches from Pigeon Point to Gaviota State Park along the California coast. They have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1977, and counts must exceed 3,090 for three consecutive years before the population is considered safe, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southern Sea Otter Recovery Plan.
(c) 2011, Santa Cruz Sentinel (Santa Cruz, Calif.).
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