Authorities investigate fatal shooting of protected sea otter

MORRO BAY, Calif. (AP) — California authorities are investigating the fatal shooting of a protected southern sea otter that had been rescued and returned to the ocean last year, officials said Tuesday.

The dead otter was found floating in Morro Bay in September and a necropsy determined it was killed with a pellet gun, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said.

A numbered tag identified the animal as an otter that had previously been found tangled in a fishing line. It was rehabilitated and returned to the wild in July 2016.

The killing was the latest in a rash of sea otter crimes along the stretch of coastline between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the department said. A skinned otter was found in September. Three otters were shot to death in August 2016.

Southern sea otters, which are sometimes called California sea otters, are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and California law.

Violations for harming or harassing otters, or possessing their pelts or other body parts without permits, are punishable by fines up to $100,000 and potential imprisonment.

The rescue and rehabilitation of the Morro Bay otter that was later found dead involved Fish and Wildlife staff, the local harbor patrol, the Marine Mammal Center and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“The senseless shooting of any sea otter is concerning,” Mike Harris, a Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist who helped with the rescue, said in a statement. “But to discover a case such as this, where a team of conservation organizations had already successfully treated the animal for a life-threatening entanglement, is exceptionally troubling and frustrating.”

There were once several hundred thousand to more than a million sea otters worldwide but their numbers were devastated by the fur trade during the 18th and 19th centuries, the fish and wildlife department said.

California’s sea otter population was thought to have become extinct early in the 20th century until a tiny group was discovered along the Big Sur coast.

The population has been counted annually under a standardized method since 1982. This year’s survey tallied 3,186 otters.