Three southern sea otters were shot to death near Santa Cruz, and officials have offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who can provide them with information regarding the fatal shootings.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are investigating the deaths of three male sea otters, which washed ashore sometime in mid-August in between the Santa Cruz Harbor and Seacliff State Beach several days after being shot to death, according to officials.
A fourth dead otter washed ashore, officials said, and investigators were checking to see if it also was a victim of gunfire.
Kim Steinhardt, a wildlife lecturer, said the lives of sea otters in a sense provide a lens for the health of the ocean and environment, so it's important for marine experts and the general public to pay attention and respect them.
"It's appalling to me," Steinhardt said of the shootings. "It happens every now and again. I understand there's a rash of shootings now. I just can't fathom how or why people would do that."
Wildlife officials said the first otter was discovered Aug. 12 between 19th and 20th avenues; the second was discovered on Aug. 15 at Twin Lakes Beach; the third otter was found on Aug. 19 at Seacliff Beach.
The fourth otter turned up at Natural Bridges on Aug. 20, officials said.
Repercussions for slaying a southern sea otter, which is listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species act, include a $100,000 fine and potential jail time, according to officials.
Although three other sea otters were killed by gunfire back in 2013 at Asilomar State Beach on the Monterey Peninsula, Max Schad, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said sea otter shootings are rare.
"This is pretty unique," he said. "We consider this a very serious violation. Sea otters are a threatened species. They're protected both federally and by the state of California."
Schad added that officials have no credible information regarding potential suspects and motives pertaining to this month's case.
Some local beachgoers say a fine and jail time aren't enough.
"To hurt something that beautiful, I mean, I don't know what to say about that," Santa Cruz resident Kenny Reaves said. "It's just not right."
Southern sea otters have been threatened since 1977 and regularly populate the waters off California's coast, according to officials.
Anyone with information regarding the fatal shootings is asked to call the CalTIP line at 888-334-2258 or contact the special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service at 650-876-907.