CAYUCOS, Calif. - The number of Southern sea otters along the California coastline has declined, but population numbers on the Central Coast are more promising.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Survey released new data Tuesday showing the average otter population dropped to 2,962 this year. That's a decrease of 166 from 2018.
Southern sea otters are protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act and experts have closely monitored their numbers for decades.
The largest population was along the Central Coast, between Cayucos and Seaside in Monterey County. Experts say the population trends in that region are still positive.
The population appears to be dropping north of Monterey Bay and in areas south of Cayucos. Wildlife experts say shark bites may be to blame.
"By thoroughly reviewing the best available data, we'll have a better understanding of all factors influencing the sustainability of the southern sea otters in the wild," said Lilian Carswell, southern sea otter recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. "These remarkable marine mammals continue to encounter hurdles, like shark bite mortality, that limit their ability to expand into areas where they historically thrived."
Until this year, the population appeared to be increasing. 2018 marked the third year in a row where the population was above 3,090. That's the number needed to consider taking southern sea otters off the Endangered Species list.
Scientists have been collecting otter population data since the 1980s. They focus on the area stretching from Gaviota State Beach in Santa Barbara County to Point Año Nuevo in San Mateo County.
They were presumed extinct in California in the early 1900s, but they were rediscovered near Big Sur in the 1930s and have gradually made a comeback.
Experts say they play an important role in the marine ecosystem by keeping kelp forests and seagrass beds in balance and indicating how healthy the ocean is in general.