California Man sentenced for shooting at a baby sea otter

By: Ashley Gustafson

11 Nov 2009, California, USA --- Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) mother with one week old pup, Monterey Bay, California --- Image by © Suzi Eszterhas/Minden Pictures/Corbis

When I came across this headline, wading through various news stories, it made me not only completely disgusted but also incredibly sad. Like many marine mammals, the southern sea otter is listed as endangered on the IUCN red list of threatened species with a notable decreasing population trend. In the United States, sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 as well as the Endangered Species Act of 1973 in southwest Alaska and California. Thus, harming them in any way whether for sport or harvest is completely illegal. For most, the idea of harming, let alone shooting at a baby sea otter is repulsive and even immoral. It is the job of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect these animals from the minority of people who disagree or simply do not care. Poaching is illegal in every context, and there are consequences to harming or killing protected animals. That is why it is important to share this story as well as other poaching busts to educate and inform the public of current wildlife crime.

Endangered Animal Shooting Making Headlines

This particular story occurred just about one year ago on an evening in December 2014 in Moss Landing, California. Richard Niswonger, a 71-year-old man, told the authorities that he shot an air rifle at a sea otter pup that he claimed had by crying and wailing for weeks and he was “tired and annoyed” of hearing it. Luckily, the sea otter pup was not hit by the bullet and thus not injured in the incident according to several people who witnessed the event. Niswonger was sentenced to 150 hours of community service, a $500 fine, and six months of probation. Some might think this is a hefty consequence for shooting at a baby sea otter while others may not think that it is harsh enough for the intent of harming an endangered animal. Either way U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Ashley Spratt is very pleased with the outcome. She stated last week when the sentence was first announced, “It demonstrates that people can face charged from the ESA (Endangered Species Act) even when the animal wasn’t killed.” This is a fantastic point that is so important for the public to know and understand. The ESA does exactly as its name suggests, it protects endangered species from not only death but also any harm. The act protects sea otters and other endangered animals from any person who attempts to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect” an endangered species. In addition to the ESA, the sea otter is also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act which prohibits any person from approaching a sea otter too closely. This is measured by the sea otters behavior and a person’s proximity should not change the animal’s behavior. In this case, shooting at a crying baby sea otter was ruled harm of an endangered animal and the crime was punished accordingly even though the animal survived.
After the sentencing of this case was announced Jill Birchell, a special agent of in charge of the Southwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s office of law enforcement stated, “We are pleased with the outcome of this case. Harassing federally threatened or endangered wildlife is a crime. People should be aware that their actions, whether intentional or not, can have significant consequences to sea otters and could lead to federal charges.”


While overall sea otter populations a decreasing, southern sea otters from Monterey Bay to Cambria have actually had a substantial rebound in the last five years with population numbers as low as 2,711 individuals bouncing up to an estimated 3,054 individuals currently. While this is great news, there is also still plenty to be done. There are many major threats that still put pressure on the global sea otter populations. The biggest current threat to sea otters is oil spills. When caught in oil, sea otters become hypothermic since sea otter fur loses its insulative or warming property. Since they lack a blubber layer their fur is their source of warmth. Grooming for sea otter is very important and when oil is ingested from the fur this can lead to obvious health problems or even death for the sea otter. Sea otters are also vulnerable to getting caught in nets for commercial fishing. While illegal now, sea otters were once heavily hunted for their dense fur coats and are still at risk for illegal harvest for fur trade. However, not all sea otter decline is caused by mankind. Sea otters also have natural predators which have been responsible for some of their current and previous decline events. These predators include: killer whales, great white sharks, bald eagles, coyotes, and brown bears.

Overall, while the headline of this story may be disheartening and volatile, the outcome is justice for an adorable, important, and protected animal. Today, endangered animal conservation has never been so important and sharing news and stories about these animals is so critical for their future. We only have one planet and once a species becomes extinct it is gone forever. Protected animals need to be at minimum respected and hopefully small efforts for conservation will allow for these animals to not need the protection of acts like the ESA.