The annual spring count of California's sea otter population is a disappointment for researchers. The latest study by the U.S. Geological Survey shows the second straight year of declining numbers. The number of sea otter pups dropped dramatically this year by 11 percent from last year.
Tim Tinker is the lead scientist for the count and with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center. Tinker blames El Nino for the significant drop in the pup population.
"When we have a winter with a lot of severe storms as we had this year, that just tends to mean more pups don't make it through the winter and end up on the beach," he said.
USGS says in 2008, the three year average for the otter population was 2,826. Last year it dropped to 2,813 and this year the number was even lower at 2,711 -- That is a 3.64 percent decline from the previous year.
While winter storms may have played a role, researchers say the causes for a declining population encompass both man made and natural causes.
Steve Shimek, executive director of The Otter Project based in Monterey says water quality is a major factor in the health of the sea otters. Shimek says cities and farmers need to do a better job of regulating runoff into the oceans.
"The pesticides and nitrates that AG uses should stay on the farms and shouldn't wash into our oceans," he said.
Tinker says for southern sea otters to be considered to be taken off the threatened species list, the overall population would have to exceed 3,090 for three consecutive years. That threshold is set by the Southern Sea Otter Recovery Plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Researchers say the otter is an early indicator species which means that the population gives us early clues as to the health of near shore coastal waters.