Death of Two Endangered Sea Otters at Long Beach Sparks Inquiry

LONG BEACH, WA--June 4th, 2015

Domic acid unlikely to have caused the deaths of two sea otters that washed ashore in Long Beach.

Two dead northern sea otters have washed up on Long Beach in recent weeks, a surprise since the marine mammals — which are classified as endangered in Washington state — are not known to live here.

Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the lead agency looking into the deaths, believe the otters likely picked up a deadly protozoa and may not have died here at all.

A mature female sea otter found on May 27 by a home-school group just north of Cranberry beach approach is frozen and now on its way to Madison, Wis., where it will be examined at the National Wildlife Health Center lab run by U.S. Geological Survey. They will test the organs and look for lesions on the brain.

It could be months before people here know exactly how or why the otter died.

Another otter washed ashore about a week or 10 days earlier closer to downtown Long Beach and was too decayed for scientific analysis.

“They very well could have floated from anywhere up north,” said Fish and Wildlife Services Biologist Deanna Lynch.

Though some people suspected recent high levels of a marine toxin called domoic acid off the Long Beach Peninsula could have contributed to the otters’ deaths, Lynch says it is far more likely to be protozoal encephalitis, a disease otters can pick up through their food.

Historical context

Most of the world’s sea otters live in coastal Alaska, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They have only recently started making a comeback in Washington state.

Here they eat sea urchins, clams, crabs and mussels. They must consume 25 percent of their body weight in food each day to maintain their high metabolism.

Sea otter pelts were once considered a pillar of the Lower Columbia River economy. Between 1700 and 1911, an estimated 1 million sea otters were trapped and killed for their fur along North America’s Pacific coast.

After being absent from the state for decades, 59 sea otters from Alaska were introduced to the Washington coast in 1969 and 1970. The sea otter was listed as a state endangered species in 1981, and has grown at an annual average rate of 8.2 percent from 1989 to 2004, according to WDFW surveys.

By 2010, they were believed to number about 1,000.

A survey from 2012 found the state’s largest concentration of otters was 562 around Destruction Island off the northern Olympia Peninsula. WDFW recovery plans predict that sea otters could be found once again in their historical southern habitat such as Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay.

The first modern Columbia sighting was on March 12, 2009, at North Head. Later in the same week, a sea otter was spotted at Cape Disappointment State Park. No official sightings were reported between then and the recent discoveries of deceased otters, though occasional appearances have been rumored.

The animals are protected by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, with steep fines and imprisonment for anyone convicted of harming or harassing them.

Because sea otters are so rare, confirmed sightings and strandings are important to report. If you see a sea otter, gather as much detail about the sighting as possible — its color, what it was doing, and where it was — then call 1-87-SEAOTTER to report your sighting.

If you encounter a stranded sea otter, do not approach it. It is illegal to handle sea otters and other marine mammals.

“The best advice we can give is stay clear and observe, don’t get near it no matter what,” Lynch said. “They can move faster than you think they can.”

‘Sea’ versus ‘river’

Many “sea otter” sightings in modern times are really just river otters taking dips in the ocean. Both species are members of the weasel family, a group that includes everything from minks to wolverines. But they are very different from each other. Several characteristics can help you identify which type of otter you are seeing:

• Adult sea otters are much bigger, reaching close to 5 or 6 feet long.

• They are stout animals with a thick multi-layered coat of fur.

• The fur on their bodies is usually dark brown while the fur on their heads can sometimes be lighter tan color.

• Both river and sea otters have webbed feet, but while river otters have distinct paws with claws and webbing, sea otters possess two flipper-like back feet in addition to their clawed and webbed forepaws.

• Sea otters rarely come to shore. They eat, sleep, mate and give birth in the ocean. They may drape themselves in kelp to keep from drifting while they sleep or gang up with other sea otters to float in large “rafts” on the ocean.

• They rarely come to land unless they are sick or the waves are simply too rough for them.