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Why are sea otters dying in Alaska?


September 29, 2006

Thin and listless, the sea otter washed ashore the morning of Sept. 19 at Homer, Alaska. Struggling to breathe, it appeared partially paralyzed.

By 9:47 a.m., a phone call came in to Homer resident Cy St-Amand, who with his wife L.A. Holmes volunteers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor and pick up stranded marine mammals.




As he has done countless times before, St-Amand arrived on the scene, observed the animal's behavior, scooped the otter up and began the 173-mile drive to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward for treatment.

Unfortunately, St-Amand said, the otter displayed the classic symptoms of a deadly bacterial infection linked to a die-off in Kachemak Bay. Fish and Wildlife calls such die-offs "Unusual Mortality Events" or UMEs, and this one has attracted the attention of national sea otter experts.

In November, a team of federal biologists will arrive in Homer to study the phenomenon and see what, if anything, can be done to stem the Kachemak Bay die-off.

"They will be able to provide ... the specialists to come in, and that's truly the most important part of this," said Angela Doroff, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Wildlife's Marine Mammal Management division. "We're getting help exactly where we need it."

No one knows exactly how severe the Kachemak Bay die-off is, Doroff said, but the anecdotal evidence is troubling. Over the years, reports of washed-up otters, either dead or nearly dead, have increased along the Homer Spit and surrounding area.

St-Amand, who researches otters in his business, Otter Works, said he went from receiving no dead-otter sightings or reports in the mid-1990s to receiving up to one a day this year.

"We were averaging about two animals a week either being picked up or found dead, which is pretty high," Doroff said.

Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Verena Gill wrote the report that secured the additional federal funding. She and Doroff are part of a team of researchers who have been studying the animals since early this century.

In southwest Alaska, Doroff said, the population has declined by more than 90 percent in portions of the Aleutian Island chain and along the southern Alaska Peninsula since the late 1980s. Last August, the southwest population of northern sea otters was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Are the Kachemak Bay otters, part of the neighboring southcentral population, destined for the same fate?

The problem is just as perplexing. Gill said sea otters may die or wash up on beaches for many reasons, including disease, boat strikes, starvation or other injuries. But in Kachemak Bay, an unusually high number of these dead animals have been diagnosed with the bacterium Streptococcus bovis, which can block arteries in different parts of the body, often near the hip, causing the telltale paralysis St-Amand often sees in otters he retrieves.

The last survey of the Kachemak Bay sea otters, in 2002, estimated the population at nearly 1,000 animals. No one knows how the current die-off has affected the population.

Doroff said federal experts help by providing information that can link necropsy results with studies on the wild population. Also, the experts will help conduct new population surveys to monitor the population trend over time. That information will give Fish and Wildlife a better idea of the extent of the problem, Doroff said.

"We don't know if they are dying from the bacteria or if the bacteria is secondary to another problem," Gill said.

According to Gill's research, sea otters whose deaths have been linked to Streptococcus have been found from Umnak Island in the eastern Aleutians to Homer's Kachemak Bay. Most come from Kachemak Bay.

Whether this is a product of more human eyes spotting the otters or a problem specific to the bay is unknown, Doroff said. Still, the high mortality and the conditions under which the animals are dying prompt concern, she said.

"It's ... never a good sign to see prime-aged animals dying," Doroff said. "Your typical mortality pattern includes very young or very old animals. But what we're seeing is a lot of prime-aged animal not making it."


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