Sea Otter Necropsy in Morro Bay

Sea Otter Necropsy - Morro Bay - © Mike Baird

I received a notice tonight from Defenders of Wildlife, asking for help in finding the killer of a young sea otter. The female otter was found along Morro Strand in June of this year — slain illegally, with the post-mortem revealing a shot to her head.

In seeking additional information on this case, I landed on a photo page with some video of the young otter’s necropsy. Turns out, it is a small world, after all. The video was shot by my Flickr friend and wildlife photographer Mike Baird. Mike is the person who actually came upon the pup and called in his finding to the California Department of Fish and Game.

It doesn’t surprise me that Mike could be a part in resolving this case. He’s a superb wildlife photographer, no question. But he’s also a generous and thoughtful person with an established interest in the community, environment and wildlife of Morro Bay. My debt to Mike as a photographer is unquantifiable. My appreciation for his efforts on behalf of wildlife, like this sea otter, is immeasurable.

He and the other fortunate souls of Morro Bay live among sea otters in the waters of Morro Bay, a facet of their lives I quite envy. I have to travel southward from the Bay Area to see them at all. And I’ve only the most fleeting meetings with sea otters over lunch. Even then, they’ve become my favorite encounter along the coast — as they paddle with the tide up Elkhorn slough, cracking mollusks on their chests.

This photo was also taken by M. Baird. It’s a sea otter holding her pup as she floats on her back.

Sea Otter and Pup by Mike Baird

Sea Otter and Pup - © Mike Baird

In this context of sea otter appreciation, it becomes even more difficult to fathom the mindset of someone who would harm a young sea otter. She was shot, possibly out at sea, potentially along the shoreline. And since Southern sea otters (California sea otters) are a threatened species, it’s a serious crime to kill them. The penalty is a $10,000 fine and possible jail time.

According to The Otter Project there are fewer than 3000 of these sea otters left, a precipitous decline from their numbers in the 18th century (15,000 to 17,000). Fur hunters nearly wiped them out entirely. They disappeared from San Francisco Bay altogether. There were just 50 otters left along the Big Sur coast after the deluge of fur hunting that brought them to the precipice of extinction. As with other species who’ve suffered near extermination at human hands, it seems particularly egregious when struggling populations continue to suffer the ravages of human malice and stupidity, as in the case of this young otter.

Reward for Finding the Sea Otter Killer

Defenders of Wildlife is offering reward money in this case. They’re also asking for contributions toward a $15,000 goal, to help save sea otter populations. If you have any information about this shooting, call US Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Mona Iannelli at 310-328-1516 x229 (referenced in Mike’s documentation of the scene). For poaching violations in general, call DFG’s CalTIP line: 1-888-DFG-CALTIP.


More Information about Southern Sea Otters

When I posted previously about Sea Otters, a Program Associate from The Otter Project was kind enough to stop by and help me ID the gender on the otter I’d photographed. The Otter Project promotes the recovery of sea otter populations — and their website is a wealth of information about these animals.

Sea Otter Scoop is The Otter Project’s official blog. A recent post — Overfishing, climate change, and superhero sea otters — describes spiny-urchin overrun, and how predators like sea otters play a significant role in the bigger biological and climatological web.

To see more of Mike Baird’s amazing photography, go to his Flickr photo sets.