MONTEREY BAY (CBS News) — California sea otters capture people’s hearts. Kids line up and squeal in excitement when spotting them.

Recently, the otters have begun losing ground in their struggle to survive. Many are mysteriously falling victim to a ruthless killer: The great white shark.

“This year was an alarming number of white shark attacks that we identified,” said Dr. Michael Murray, a Monterey Bay Aquarium veterinarian. “I think the jury’s still out on, ‘a’ what it means and ‘b’ why it happens.”

It’s puzzling because the sharks don’t eat the otters, but one bite is enough to kill the furry creatures. It’s one reason for a worrying decline in the number of California sea otters.

The latest count of this threatened species shows their population dropped to just 2,711, a decline of 3.6 percent. The number of sea otter pups, which represent the future of the species, is down 11 percent.

Dr. Melissa Miller, of the California Dept. of Fish and Game, pointed to a female that died right around the time that she was going to give birth.

When otters die they often end up in Miller’s lab, which is a kind of crime scene investigation unit for otter deaths. Sharks are not the only problem.

“We know something’s happening where otters that are prime-aged animals are dying of heart failure,” Miller said.

Since sea otters spend their lives right along the coast, their health can be affected not only by what’s happening in the sea but also by what’s happening on land. It’s a complex, often puzzling interaction.

Heart disease could be linked to the otter’s voracious appetite that makes it vulnerable to toxic runoff from land, said Tim Tinker of the U.S. Geological Survey, who tracks the otters’ food supply.

“Disease causing parasites are going to end up in the ocean there. And sea otters are at the top of the food chain,” Tinker said.

For awhile, in the effort to keep up the population, abandoned sea otter pups were hand raised by human surrogate mothers. It did not work. Though frustrated, researchers continue to study otters, capturing them to look for signs of malnutrition and disease, still hoping to save an animal that remains better loved than it is understood.

(© 2011 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.)

Comments (8)
  1. Sintack says:

    No salmon=fewer seals/sea lions. Fewer seals/sea lions=sharks trying the next largest thing on the menu. If they aren’t eating them it’s because they are tasting them and not recognizing it as food. Everything is intertwined, connected. Remove something as seemingly trivial as ‘just a salmon’ and systems will collapse.

  2. Tours Martel says:

    Ah, but there is a small difficulty with the “no salmon” explanation. While salmon numbers were down last year, this year the salmon is back in large numbers. Blasted inconvient facts!

  3. Jeffery Lowers says:

    Odd, I just saw dozens and dozens of them at Elkhorn Slough last weekend. More than I have ever seen at this time of year.

  4. Randy says:

    Anyone for a little Great White Shark Hunting to help our fuzzy friends?

  5. hfdghfdghfdgh says:

    thats pretty much their bad for being so stupid as to keep living in the ocean… that place is a death trap. i dont even go in the water when i visit the beach.

  6. Spencer says:

    @ hfdgh – I agree. They should evolve right now to become a land-dwelling mustelid, and then evolve back as a marine mammal once those hungry endangered fish are gone. Great white shark (a.k.a. “ruthless killer”) populations are declining too. BTW, are great whites the only carnivore that is considered ruthless when it eats? I’ve seen people scarf down on steak and they’re never called ruthless killers. 🙂

  7. OttersDontFlush says:

    Here’s another reason why sea otter populations are down:

  8. Ron Keffer says:

    I have a hard time believing the information provided because the information is more often tainted by the people putting the information on the street. The people collecting the information, for whatever reason, report what they want to sway the public into supporting new laws that no one bothers to verify. About four years ago it was the local fishermen killing the otters with their boats. Now that there is no fisherman they are blaming the problem on the Great White….I have never heard a report that discloses how many otters are tagged in California. The number is astounding. Maybe we are messing with nature a little too often. Maybe they are becoming infected at time of tagging…. you don’t know anymore now than you did before this writing…. WE ARE A NATION OF SHEEP

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