It's Sea Otter Awareness Week in Alaska and the otters aren't doing that well.
Over the last few years, more and more otters in the Aleutians and Katchemak Bay have been turing up dead or ill with a strep infection. According to Fish and Wildlife records, the affected otters are overwhelmingly in the prime of life. This is the sort of pattern that is common when a new disease enters a population, and new diseases often decimate populations.
Otters are more than just cute and furry sea mammals. They are a keystone species that are vital to maintaining the biological diversity of the tidal zone ecosystem. Otters are the main predators on sea urchins. Without otters, sea urchin population explodes and over-grazes the kelp beds which are the breeding grounds for herring and a number of invertibrate species. Herring and tideland invertibrates in turn are a main source of food for sea birds and other fish and sea mammals. Without enough otters, the whole system starts to crumble.
In the panhandle of Southeastern Alaska, otters are already an endangered species. It would be a terrible tragedy if the Aleutian and Katchemak otters were to join them. Alaska need its otters.