SeaLife Center prepares for influx of sick sea otters

KENAI — Alaska SeaLife Center is preparing for another busy year of stranded otters.

The Seward nonprofit has recorded 80 reports of dead, sick or unresponsive sea otters on beaches so far in 2016. Officials say that number is high considering the summer season has not begun, The Peninsula Clarion reported.

There are six otters boarding at the center, and two are newly admitted pups that need 24-hour surveillance.

SeaLife Center typically only keeps staff on four 24-hour periods during the summer, but with so many reports already coming in, the center has kept staff on for 24-hour watches for the last 10 months, except for 21 days.

SeaLife spokeswoman Jennifer Gibbins said the extra work so early in the season does mean the nonprofit is incurring higher costs, but corporate, state and individual donors help keep the doors open.

Gibbins said the otter pups at the center are doing well and growing quickly.

“We’ll take it as it comes,” said Carrie Goertz, the staff veterinarian for the SeaLife Center. “We do pride ourselves on being adaptive. If needed, we’ll adjust our schedule.”

Goertz said the center is on track to have its second-highest rate of response to stranded otters ever.

The high number of sick otters may have to do the El Nino weather pattern, Goertz said. The warmer ocean temperatures are likely affecting food availability. She said an increasing number of algal blooms along the Pacific Coast also are likely affecting the ecosystem.

Last year set records for otter strandings with 300 reports of sick or dead otters in 2015. Goertz said last year’s influx of deaths were likely due to a streptococcus bacterial infection, which is considered endemic to the population. Reports of otters sick from the infection in the Homer area have slowed but are still higher than average, she said.

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