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CONSERVATION CORNER
(For the week of January 16, 2012)
Otters – A Difficult Dilemma
by James L. Cummins

It was early morning on the last day of duck season several years ago. Although I was mostly scanning the sky for ducks, my eye caught the glimpse of what I first thought was a beaver. I then noticed it was a river otter.   

The river otter is a carnivorous animal. They eat a variety of foods, including amphibians, aquatic invertebrates, birds, crustaceans, fish, frogs, small mammals, snails, snakes, turtles, water insects and worms. They can eat up to 2.5 pounds of fish per day. They sleep during the day and hunt for their food at night. While hunting, they can dive more than 60 feet deep because of their webbed feet and stay underwater for up to 4 minutes. They will sometimes travel up to 10 miles in any given night looking for food.

Sometimes, otters can be a problem for fish farmers and private lake and pond owners, and it becomes especially bad during the winter months. Otters can be a very serious problem for those who raise and sell fish for a living. If they get into the stock, every fish eaten literally takes money out of the owner’s pocket.

Otters can certainly cause headaches for fish farmers and pond owners, but most experts say they aren’t likely to wipe out the entire fish population because area lakes are so readily available and otters will travel as far as 50 miles to hunt for food.

They usually just take a few fish from one pond or lake and then move on to the next one to do the same thing. Of course, this is little comfort to those who are raising ornamental fish in their pond or to the farmer who depends on each fish for income.

Otters catch the fish in their mouths and will often consume smaller fish while still in the water. They drag larger fish to the bank and often leave behind nothing but a pile of scales. Years ago, an otter, or possibly more than one otter, almost wiped the catfish out of my 2.5-acre pond in Webster County.

Adult otters can be as small as 3 feet long or grow as large as 5 feet long and usually weigh 15 pounds or more. They can live and breed for up to 20 years.

Each state has its own set of regulations for dealing with otters in private ponds. For Mississippi regulations, visit www.mdwfp.com.
James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore and enhance fish, wildlife and plant resources throughout Mississippi.