VIA MERCURY NEWS
Great whites taking a bite out of California sea otter population
California’s sea otters have struggled for years with diseases, parasites and even the occasional collision with boats. But now the fuzzy coastal mascots are increasingly facing another threat: shark attacks.
For reasons still a mystery to scientists, the number of sea otters killed by sharks, with great whites as the leading suspects, has soared in recent years.
“It’s been very dramatic,” said Tim Tinker, a Santa Cruz-based wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “It’s having the biggest impact on population growth of any factor.”
In the mid-1990s, about 10 percent of the dead sea otters found along the California coast had shark bites. Today, it’s roughly 30 percent – and growing – to the point where shark attacks now represent the largest hurdle to the otters’ recovery from the endangered species list.
Last year, 70 sea otters bearing the telltale signs of shark attacks washed ashore between San Mateo County and Santa Barbara.
Among the carcasses with clear shark bite wounds, some have teeth from white sharks embedded in their bodies. Others have scratch patterns on bones that match the serrated edges of white shark teeth. Still others have bite marks in the half-moon pattern of shark jaws.
“We have found some that have survived,” Tinker said. “But I don’t think it’s a very large percentage. I would guess 80 to 90 percent of the time it’s lethal.”
Nobody knows why sharks seem to be killing otters at rates greater than ever recorded off California’s Central Coast. Great whites have never been filmed or even confirmed to have eaten an entire otter for food.
One leading theory, Tinker said, is that the populations of sea lions and elephant seals – the marine mammals that white sharks regularly eat – has grown in recent decades, expanding to new places. Sharks might be changing their hunting patterns and accidentally be biting sea otters, mistaking them for seals and sea lions, and then leaving them to die.
“Is it because the sharks are changing their behavior, or is there a change in the number of sharks?” said Mike Murray, staff veterinarian at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Or is there something wrong with the otters? Are these otters sick and maybe doing something at the surface of the water that attracts a predator? Or are they unable to evade predators?”
It’s difficult to say that white shark numbers are increasing. Last year, the first comprehensive study of the number of white sharks off the California coast estimated there are 219, fewer than previously thought.
“We can’t say if it is going up or down,” said shark expert Barbara Block, a Stanford marine biology professor who helped write the population study.
Block said other species of sharks, including seven gills and makos, might also be attacking otters. She said that having a population of large predators is healthy for any ecosystem, and that more research is needed before clear conclusions can be drawn.
“It could be just a few individuals, or a few species,” Block said. “The neighborhood is rich in species. We need to keep in mind it’s a wild place out here.”
In recent years, scientists have struggled to explain why California sea otters, hunted to near extinction a century ago, have rebounded, but only slowly. The most recent count, in 2010, estimated 2,711 otters off the California coast, a decrease of 3.6 percent from the year before.
Marine biologists have cited diseases like toxoplasmosis, believed to be related to polluted runoff from land, as factors. Before, sharks were considered a minor threat. A decade ago most shark attacks occurred on male otters, which are more numerous near the northern boundary of the otter range near Año Nuevo State Park in San Mateo County.
But more recently, the number of female otters – more dominant in the southern part of the range – killed by sharks has soared. Each female can give birth to eight or more pups, so the trend is particularly troubling.
One major change: the abundance of elephant seals. Until 1990, the large mammals were rare along the coast in San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara counties. But that year, two dozen came ashore at Piedras Blancas, near Hearst Castle. Now there are more than 15,000.
A small number of white sharks, perhaps juveniles, could be coming into the area to feed on young elephant seals and end up killing otters as well, Tinker said. Had the rate of shark attacks remained where it was a decade ago, there would be roughly 500 more California sea otters now – about 3,250, according to his computer models. That would be enough to reach the 3,090 population target to remove the otter from the federally endangered-species list…
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