Federal scientists expressed cautious optimism this week after confirming an increase in the California sea otter population on the southern reaches of the Central Coast.
The annual spring count, which is conducted by state agencies, private groups, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), actually found a slight drop in the otter's overall population: 2,735 otters seen, down 3.2 percent from last year's record high.
But USGS scientists were quick to discourage inferring too much from that decrease. Jim Estes, a research scientist with USGS and an adjunct professor at UC Santa Cruz, described this year's overall count as "unremarkable," and the population as "stable." He said each year's tally of otters is important only in that it gives scientists a sense of trends in the population - and looking at the most recent number on that line means very little.
"What do the counts mean? The short answer is: Not much," he said. "We've got another data point. We've got another year behind us. We've got another count. Is there any real news [in the numbers]? Probably not much."
What is still unknown is how last year's otter die off affected this year's count. In April 2004 60-plus dead or dying sea otters were found on local beaches - deaths that the state's department of Fish and Game attributed to a brain parasite found in the feces of opossums.
"What do the counts mean? The short answer is: Not much. We've got another data point. We've got another year behind us. We've got another count.'
Jim Estes, USGS research scientist
Estes said it's not clear if those deaths actually reflected an overall increase in mortality in the otter population. Estes said that up until a few years ago, there was a clear relationship between the number of dead sea otters found on beaches and trends in the overall population. But, he said, that relationship has fallen apart and no one can say exactly why.
"The only way I can reconcile it is [to say] I don't think there's any more animals dying, they're just dying in places where we can find them," he said.
While scientists cautioned against reading too much into the total population count, they were optimistic about the number of otters the survey counted around Point Conception - the southern boundary of the study.
In the late 1990s, the otter population in the area had grown to a substantial size; 153 were spotted in a February 1999 count. But over the following years, that number plummeted. Last year's USGS survey found only eight otters.
This year, they counted 93.
Brian Hatfield, a USGS wildlife biologist, said they even saw a pup - a first for the area. Hatfield didn't know why there was a big jump in numbers this year but listed two possibilities. First was the gradual increase in the overall population. Second was the increase in female sea otters scientists have spotted just north of Point Conception, around the south end of Vandenberg.
"We're seeing more pups down there, which is encouraging," he said.
Estes gave similar reasons for the population increase. He also confirmed that as otters encroach into the heavily populated areas of southern Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, the potential for problems with humans increases. He also said there are also worries about how the sea otters will affect the shellfish population.
"But that's what you'd expect from a population that's recovering," he said. "If they weren't expanding, I think we'd really be worried about the otters."
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at email@example.com.