Routine Practices Uncover Sea Otter Killings

Feb 20, 2014

photo courtesy of Greg Magee Photography,
Credit Greg Magee

Investigators are trying to determine who shot and killed three sea otters near Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove back in September.  California Sea Otters are protected under the federal Endanger Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

The fact that the cause of death was discovered at all, is a credit to those protections and the broad network of organizations working to aid the recovery of the sea otter. 

One of those organizations is the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Its Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program (SORAC) frequently responds to calls of stranded sea otters, alive or dead.  About 300 to 400 otter carcasses turn up on the California coast every year. 

When the SORAC team picked up a dead sea otter near Asilomar State Beach back in September, no one knew it had been shot.

“What happens with the carcasses is scavengers will start pecking holes, gulls or turkey vultures or things like that.  So it’s not uncommon to see carcasses with holes in them, but that’s not necessarily cause of death. It’s something that happened post mortem. And with sea otters they have such dense fur that it can actually mask a trauma,” said Karl Mayer Animal Care Coordinator with SORAC.

The gunshot was discovered when the otter underwent a necropsy.  Soon after, two more otters were found shot near Asilomar.

Since otters became protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, every sea otter carcass found in California has undergone some sort of postmortem exam.  The result is database detailing causes of death in otters over the past 40 years. 

Disease and white shark bites are common, while gun shots are rare.  In the last decade, there’s been about one a year.

“The thing that made this particular case concerning and upsetting was the fact that we had three cases that came from right around the same place, right around the same time. As I mentioned I’ve been doing sea otters for quite a long time and that was not something I had encountered before,” said Dr. Melissa Miller with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Dr. Miller conducts many of the exams. 

Since September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been handling the investigation.  But it wasn’t until this past week that investigators asked for the public’s help, and announced a $21,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the shooter.

“I think it’s worth $21,000 to catch the person because it sends a loud message that people can’t harm wildlife and get away with it,” said Jim Curland with Friends of the Sea Otter.  The non-profit contributed $1000 to the reward. 

Money for the reward also came from the Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, Monterey Bay Aquarium, U.C. Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center and the California Sea Otter Fund (the fund California taxpayers voluntarily contribute to on tax returns).  

Curland says he hopes the reward is “enough of an incentive that somebody who maybe heard somebody bragging about it or telling a friend about it or something will come forward.”

Killing a sea otter is punishable by up to $100,000 in fines and possibly jail time.

Anyone with information is asked to contact U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Souphanya at 650-876-9078.  Or an anonymous report can be made at 703-358-1949.