Rare endangered mammal spotted in Strait of Juan de Fuca

PORT ANGELES, Wash. -- There is some good news coming out of the Salish Sea.

A naturalist on a whale watching boat spotted a sea otter hanging out near the Elwha River in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It's the third sea otter spotted in the Salish Sea this year, following one spotted near the San Juan Islands and another near Victoria B.C.

Sea otters are listed as endangered species by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It's rare for sea otters to be found in and around the Puget Sound, said Dr. Shawn Larson, the curator of conservation research at the Seattle Aquarium. But it's not unheard of historically.

Sea otters were hunted out of Washington in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the last otter seen off the coast in 1910.

But the marine mammals were reintroduced in the 1960s, Larson said. They struggled initially, but numbers have been on the rise.

At last count in 2017, there were 2,058 sea otters in Washington and numbers were growing at a rate of about 10 percent a year. Their numbers have more than doubled since 2004.

"Our otter population is growing faster than any other population," Larson said. "They're some of the largest otters in the sea."

Larson said historical records show there was never a huge population of sea otters in the Puget Sound, as they prefer the coast. But more animals venturing inland is good news, and she wouldn't be surprised if more than a dozen took up home in the Puget Sound.

"Most sea otters lived west of Port Angeles," Larson said.

The news on sea otter growth ns the Salish Sea is welcome for an area that has had some recent rough numbers for endangered animals.

Q13 News has detailed the plight of some marine birds, and the iconic Southern Resident killer whale, both which are nearing expatriation in the area.

The Salish Sea is the stretch of waterway including the Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia.