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$21,000 reward offered in shootings of 3 California sea otters

A $21,000 reward is being offered to help find who shot three California sea otters found dead last fall on a Monterey Peninsula beach, federal wildlife authorities announced Friday.

One male sea otter was found dead along Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove on Sept. 3, 2013, and  the other two males were found dead two days later in the same area, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Two of the furry marine mammals were shot in the head while one was shot through the back, necropsies showed. All three were killed by coated lead bullets sometime between Sept. 1, 2013, and Sept. 5, 2013, authorities said.

"We want to bring things full circle and find the people responsible for this act," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Resident Agent in Charge Rebecca Roca, who is supervising the criminal investigation into the shootings.

California sea otters are federally threatened, but their numbers have grown enough in recent years that the loss of three males is not likely to have a big impact on the overall population, experts said.

“But criminy sakes, shooting a marine mammal is just not a good thing to do,” said Michael Murray, veterinarian at Monterey Bay Aquarium. “It's just horrific in my eyes. Does it affect the population? No. But it is not a good thing. Why would anyone do that?”

California sea otters were nearly wiped out by fur traders who hunted them for their pelts, and by the early 1900s, a small colony of just 50 survived along the coast of Big Sur. They have struggled to make a comeback since being listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1977.

Not only do the voracious creatures struggle to find shellfish to eat, they also contend with shark attacksmicrobes and parasites.

In the 19th century, the sea otter population reached about 16,000 and spanned waters from Oregon to Baja California. Now they are typically found only from San Mateo County to Santa Barbara County.

The latest estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey's Western Ecological Research Center put their population at 2,941.

The reward offers up to $21,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whomever is responsible for the shootings. The reward money was amassed by public and private groups, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Humane Society of the United States, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, conservation groups and private donors.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urged anyone with information on the shootings to contact one of its agents at (650) 876-9078 or file an anonymous report by calling (703) 358-1949. A conviction could result in jail time and up to $100,000 in fines, according to the agency.

California sea otters, also called Southern sea otters, are protected not only by the Endangered Species Act, but under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and California law.

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tony.barboza@latimes.com
Twitter: @tonybarboza

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