Toxoplasma gondii and Sarcocystis neurona have caused significant morbidity and mortality in threatened Southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) along the central California coast. Because only terrestrial animals are known to serve as definitive hosts for T. gondii and S. neurona, infections in otters suggest a land to sea flow of these protozoan pathogens. To better characterize the role of overland runoff in delivery of terrestrially derived fecal pathogens to the near shore, we assessed the temporal association between indicators of runoff and the timing of sea otter deaths due to T. gondii and S. neurona. Sea otter stranding records 1998–2004, from Monterey and Estero bays were reviewed and cases identified for which T. gondii or S. neurona were determined to be a primary or contributing cause of death. Precipitation and stream flow data from both study sites were used as indicators of land-based runoff. Logistic regression was applied to determine if a temporal association could be detected between protozoal mortalities and runoff indicators that occur in the 2 mo preceding mortality events. A significant association was found between S. neurona otter deaths at Estero Bay and increased stream flow that occurred 30–60 days prior to mortality events. At this site, the cause of otter mortality following increased river flows was 12 times more likely to be S. neurona infection compared with nonprotozoal causes of death. There were no significant associations between the timing of T. gondii otter deaths and indicators of overland runoff. Our results indicate that the association between overland runoff and otter mortalities is affected by geography as well as parasite type, and highlight the complex mechanisms that influence transmission of terrestrially derived pathogens to marine wildlife. Policy and management practices that aim to mitigate discharges of contaminated overland runoff can aid conservation efforts by reducing pathogen pollution of coastal waters, which impacts the health of threatened marine wildlife and humans.

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