July 3, 2009

Fewer California sea otters reported

A decrease in California's endangered sea otter population likely means their water has grown more contaminated, scientists said.

In a survey taken this spring, 2,654 otters were counted from Point Conception in the Santa Barbara area north to Half Moon Bay, about a 250-mile range, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a release Thursday.

The count was the lowest single-year total since 2003, when an estimated 2,200 otters were counted.

The sea otters are counted in the spring and fall, with spring numbers considered more reliable because the weather is better and the kelp beds thinner and less likely to hide otters.

The otters numbers are considered a strong indicator of the overall health of near-shore waters off California's coast, survey scientists said.

The drop in otter numbers is a wake-up call for local cities to reduce drainage and chemical runoff, said scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which spends $1 million a year on sea otter research.