U.S. Fish and Wildlife says population remains strong at more than 1,800
By Naomi Klouda
Two dead sea otters reportedly washed ashore in Homer this weekend, one a female pup and the other not located before the tide carried it away.
Kristin Worman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife unusual mortality event responder, said the baby otter – found below Glacier Boardwalk on the Homer Spit – had suffered no apparent injuries. It measured approximately 18 inches and was under 10 weeks old, she said.
The people who located the otter reported it to Homer Police on Sunday night, and passed the information on to the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. The marine rescue group there then notified Worman on Monday morning.
“The other one was gone by this morning, but I’ll try looking for it tomorrow morning,” Worman said, adding that low tide is around 10:30 a.m., and chances are good that it will wash ashore again.
Last summer, Worman picked up 55 dead sea otters from Kachemak Bay beaches. And while that may sound like a lot, when factored into the significantly large population of otters, it really isn’t, she said.
Worman began her seasonal work May 15, with the otters reported Sunday night being the first so far. The otter carcasses are stored in freezers at U.S. Fish and Wildlife until they can be transported to an Anchorage vet for an necropsy.
According to survey results released last fall after tracking some 44 otters through radio collars, experts now know the Kachemak Bay otter population is about 1,800 strong – twice the number originally thought.
“What we thought was a high mortality rate, we now know is in proportion with the population – about 10 deaths per 100,” said Verena Gill, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife marine biologist who headed up the studies.
Biologists studying otters in surveys found them “fat and happy,” fed on the Bay’s abundant sea life, such as crab, octopus and shellfish. The fact that even the Lower Cook Inlet tanner crab populations prove abundant enough to open a subsistence fishery in the Bay tells biologists like Gill that the ecosystem is a good one. (Biologists will announce later in June if there will be a 2009 tanner crab opening.)
Still, valvular endocarditis, a virus striking otters and responsible for a number of the deaths, remains a concern. The virus is an inflammation in the innermost layer of tissue that lines the heart valves. Septicemia, a bacteria found in the blood, is most likely the earliest stage of the process leading to the infection. Sub-adult males appear to be the heaviest hit by it.
Another baby otter found last winter has fared a better fate. Skittle, a 10-week-old sea otter pup found half frozen to the dock at Seldovia on March 16, will be sent to the New York Aquarium sometime this month.
After six weeks of round-the-clock care by Alaska SeaLife Center’s Rescue and Rehabilitation staff, Skittle, now four months old, has more than doubled his weight (from 13 to 30 pounds) and reportedly has done very well in captivity. He now eats solid food such as squid and clams, and can effectively groom the thick coat of fur that keeps him warm and dry in frigid water.
However, in this case, the pup can’t be returned to the wild. According to the release, sea otter pups demand so much hands-on care, they become attached to humans and are considered “non-releasable.” As soon as Skittle arrived at the Center, efforts began to find him a permanent home at a zoo or aquarium with a sea otter exhibit. He is now scheduled to move to the New York Aquarium on Coney Island sometime in June.
The SeaLife Center operates a 24-hour hotline for the public to report stranded marine mammals or birds, and encourages people who think they may have found a stranded or sick animal to call 1-888-774-SEAL. People should not touch or approach marine mammals, as it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
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