What's Killing the Sea Otters

Every week, five or six wash up on California's shores. A new law to protect them may not be enough

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In this effort, the charismatic sea otter may be its own best friend. Marine mammal experts aren't always as sentimental about the sharp-toothed creatures as the public is--one expert referred to otters eating shellfish on their tummies as "buzz saws in a fur coat"--but no one doubts the value of the "aww" factor. "When you've been bitten by one, you don't think they're so cute," says Michelle Staedler, the Monterey Aquarium's sea otter research coordinator, "but then you look, and they're a big ball of fluff." [This article contains a complex diagram. Please see hardcopy or pdf.] Hunted Nearly To Extinction Russia's Peter the Great declared a monopoly on sable  in 1697 and sent hunters to find sea routes to America.When Vitus Bering's expedition was shipwrecked in 1741, his crew killed sea otters instead. They returned with 900 luxuriant pelts, setting off the Great Hunt. When the otters were depleted, Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. SEA OTTER FUR Built for warmth 1 million hairs per sq. in. Guard Hair Underfur Trapped Air HUMAN SCALP 150,000 hairs total Before 1741, there were as many as 300,000 sea otters on the Pacific Coast. By 1900 only a few colonies remained

Historic range

Remnant colonies Now New Threats Emerge Industrial chemicals, algae blooms and other toxins linked to coastal pollution are among the sea otter s new enemies. The threat from feline-borne toxoplasmosis, a common danger to pregnant women, helped trigger California's new law

1 Cat eats rodent or bird infected with Toxoplasma gondii parasite

2 Parasite develops in cat's gut and its eggs are released in scat

3 Eggs travel through runoff or are flushed into sewers

4 Eggs end up in the ocean and are ingested by mussels, clams and oysters

5 Otter eats shellfish; eggs infect the otter's brain and organs and kill it

Sources: Sea Otter Alliance; David Jessup, California Department of Fish and Game

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