Humans Implicated in Sea Otter Deaths

By Matt Baume
|  Monday, Sep 13, 2010  |  Updated 1:45 PM PDT
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Humans Implicated in Sea Otter Deaths

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It was a case that had biologists baffled: Where are all the sea otters going? Numbers of the cuddly threatened creatures have been steadily dwindling and now researchers think they have the answer. Unsurprisingly, humans could be to blame.

Specifically, leaking septic tanks, fertilizers and industrial farming all contribute to "nutrient loading," a phenomenon in which water runoff becomes unnaturally loaded with chemicals. Plants and microorganisms eat those chemicals and grow to unhealthy levels. In this particular case, algae containing microcystin seem to have built up in otters' bodies, causing liver damage and even cancer.

It's a threat that could soon begin to affect humans. A spate of recent dog deaths may have been caused by the poison, which normally exists in much smaller doses.

The findings are still not yet conclusive and research is still ongoing. But the evidence is hard to refute. A three-year UC Santa Cruz study shows high levels of toxicity in Wastsonville's Pinto Lake -- close to the dog deaths -- as well as near Monterey Bay and at the Santa Cruz Wharf.

Restoring balance to the water is going to be difficult. There are no regulations or standardized procedures regarding the measuring of microcystin. Somebody had better come up with some soon if we don't want to lose any more species.

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