Researchers investigate uptick in stranded and dying otters

KENAI — Researchers are trying to figure out what has been causing more dead and dying sea otters to wash up on Kachemak Bay beaches near Homer.

State wildlife officials have seen five times as many stranded sea otters in the last month than is normally expected, with 200 deaths or illnesses reported so far in 2015, the Peninsula Clarion reported.

Homer-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deputy refuge manager Marc Webber says the otters are probably ill, though they were not skinny or showing obvious signs of poor health.

“When this thing sort of started to happen in late August, we noticed that a lot of them didn’t really appear to have anything wrong with them,” Webber said. “They were pretty healthy-looking, other than they were dead.”

Volunteers are bringing the otters to Alaska SeaLife Center researchers in Seward. The FWS and SeaLife Center are conducting autopsies to determine how the animals died.

SeaLife Center staff veterinarian Dr. Carrie Goetz said usual causes of death are trauma or bacterial infection.

“There haven’t been any obvious causes of death,” Goetz said. “That’s been limiting our understanding of what’s going on.”

Goetz said testing is being conducted to determine whether an algal bloom along the coast from California to southern Alaska is releasing toxins.

Webber said sightings of dead or dying animals should be reported to a SeaLife Center hotline for stranded marine mammals.

“It’s largely people out on the beaches, getting the word out to us,” Webber said. “That’s critical to helping us know what’s going on.”

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