Sea otter

A living sea otter washed ashore near Ocean Park beach approach this week. While much smaller river otters are common in Pacific County, sea otters are rarely observed in local waters. (The white spot is a result of the smart phone’s flash illumination.)

OCEAN PARK — A severely ill sea otter that washed up near Ocean Park Monday night will be euthanized, Dyanna Lambourn, a WDFW biologist based in Olympia, said Tuesday.

The young otter may have become exhausted from the rough ocean conditions in recent days. Sea otters rarely come to land unless they are sick or the waves are too rough for them.

It was removed from the beach following authorization by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which closely monitors the species. Lambourn said Tuesday morning that she was en route to the peninsula to humanely end the animal’s life and prepare its body for shipment to a national laboratory to determine what caused its illness.

This is the first reported confirmed sighting of a living sea otter in Pacific County in several years — though they may occasionally hunt and transit through this area without being noticed.

In 2015, three dead sea otters washed up on Peninsula beaches, a possible result of unusually warm ocean temperatures.

Sea otter pelts were once a mainstay of the Lower Columbia River economy. Between 1700 and 1911, an estimated 1 million sea otters were trapped and killed for their fur along North America’s Pacific coast.

After being absent from the state for decades, 59 sea otters from Alaska were introduced to the northern Washington coast in 1969 and 1970. The sea otter has been listed as a state endangered species since 1981.

In 2018, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reported the state’s sea otters are mostly confined to about 80 miles of outer coast along the Olympic Peninsula. “The population has shown strong growth, averaging 9.5 percent per year since 1989 and increased to a 3-year running average of 1,753 individuals from 2015 through 2017,” WDFW said.

Range expansion is an objective of WDFW’s 2004 Recovery Plan, with suitable habitat available along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and north to Vancouver Island.

“There is also potential for range expansion south into unoccupied habitat such as Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay,” WDFW said, while noting that extensive human modification of habitat may discourage sea otters from recolonizing this area.

“Currently there is no consensus on why sea otters are not clearly expanding into available habitat,” WDFW said.

The first known modern Columbia sighting was on March 12, 2009 at North Head. Later in the same week, perhaps the same otter was spotted inside Baker Bay within Cape Disappointment State Park. No official live sightings were reported between then and now, though occasional appearances have been rumored.

The animals are protected by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, with steep fines and imprisonment for anyone convicted of harming or harassing them.

Because sea otters are so rare, confirmed sightings and strandings are important to report. If people see a sea otter, gather as much detail about the sighting as possible — its color, what it was doing, and where it was — then call 1-87-SEAOTTER (877-326-8837) to report sightings.

If you encounter a stranded sea otter, do not approach it. It is illegal to handle sea otters and other marine mammals.

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