Great white sharks off California will receive endangered species protection while experts spend a year studying whether the apex predators warrant being listed by the state as endangered.
The California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to advance the candidacy of white sharks to be considered for the increased protection, and the study period will include an attempt to gather better information regarding how many white sharks utilize state waters.
It’s already illegal to fish for white sharks off California, but the extra protection will include a ban on incidental take by commercial gillnet fishermen.
The commission’s vote is being hailed by conservation groups and those who believe white shark numbers are dangerously low and dwindling, and criticized by commercial fishermen and those who say not enough is known to warrant placing white sharks on the state’s endangered species list.
“We are thrilled,” Ashley Blacow, Pacific policy director for Oceana, told The Associated Press. “California continues to be a leader in ocean conservation.”
State Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Mountain Vew), told the San Jose Mercury News: “The loss of the great white shark from the coast of California would not be an isolated tragedy, but may be the start of a much larger decline of our ocean’s health.”
A study two years ago by UC Davis and Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station determined that there were about 220 adult white sharks that utilize California waters during much of the year. That alarmingly low number helped inspire efforts to secure more protection for a predator that plays a key role in maintaining the health of the marine ecosystem.
However, that number is an estimate and the study was conducted on sharks that feed seasonally at Northern California elephant seal rookeries. (There’s another group of white sharks that utilize Guadalupe Island, 165 miles west of Baja California, as a seasonal feeding ground.)
Some scientists believe that not all adult white sharks off California congregate seasonally at elephant seal rookeries, because of a booming California sea lion population throughout state waters, particularly off Southern California.
Christopher Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University-Long Beach, and a longtime white shark researcher, believes the white shark population is actually increasing.
This is due, in large part, to protections already in place for white sharks and marine mammals such as seals and sea lions, which are the chief prey of adult white sharks. These protections include a white shark fishing ban and the removal of nearshore gillnets, in the 1990s, which reduced the impact on juvenile white sharks.
Lowe told the Fish and Game Commission: “It is my professional opinion, based on the best available scientific data, that the petition to list northeast Pacific white sharks as threatened or endangered is not warranted at this time. In fact, I would argue that white sharks represent an excellent example of one of California’s greatest conservation success stories.”
During the one-year study period, Monterey Bay Aquarium, the only facility in the world to have successfully captured and temporarily displayed white sharks, will not exhibit one of the predators.
But the aquarium is supportive of the decision by the commission to evaluate whether the northeast Pacific population of white sharks warrants further protection.
Dr. Chris Harrold, director of research programs at the aquarium, said in a statement: “We are encouraged by the growing public awareness and concern for the fate of all sharks. We see the current process as another positive sign that attitudes toward sharks are shifting to recognize their vital contributions to the health of ocean ecosystems.”
For now, researches and gillnet fishermen will have to apply to the Department of Fish and Wildlife for permits to tag or accidentally capture a shark, which is expected to hold up fishing efforts off California, at least temporarily.
–White shark image is via Wikipedia
More on GrindTV
VIDEO: Tsunami strikes a famous fly-fishing river in Montana
VIDEO: Hawaiian artist takes to the waves with ‘the surfing Pomeranian’
PHOTOS: Old men and the sea? Four seniors team to land 987-pound blue marlin