Non-profit wildlife organizations Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and Shark Stewards are seeking approval from the California Fish and Game Commission for a petition that would raise protection for great white sharks.
Having already undergone evaluation by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the organizations’ petition will now face judgment by the California Fish and Game Commission on Feb. 6. If accepted, the protections may include registering Northeastern Pacific white sharks, also known as “great whites,” as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act.
Jenn Caselle, a research biologist and lecturer of ecology, evolution and marine biology at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute, said great whites have been protected from fishing under Title 14, California Code of Regulations, Fish and Game Code Section 28.06 since 1994. According to Caselle, there is a valid reason for skepticism about the danger that great whites face off of the North American West Coast.
“There is some debate among scientists about the validity of their estimates,” Caselle said in an email. “In general, worldwide, great white sharks might be in particular danger but our population estimates in California are not very good.”
However, because fishermen still oftentimes accidentally catch sharks, the petition has proposed no-fish areas for one mile around the perimeter of the Channel Islands, as well as within three miles of the islands’ shore.
President of the Shark Research Committee Ralph S. Collier explained that great white sharks can now be spotted in regions of the ocean that they did not previously inhabit, such as off the Malibu coastline. Collier said great white sharks oftentimes relocate with their prey — primarily marine mammals like harbor seals. August, September and October — when seals follow their own prey, steelhead trout, to river mouth-ocean confluences where surfers gather — are when the most frequent human-shark interaction occurs, Collier said.
“If we look at numbers from last year, we have an excess of 400,000 pinnipeds, or seals and sea lions, in the state of California,” Collier said. “We have an abundance of prey, and these animals, because of their numbers, are starting to utilize areas where, historically, you would not find them … When you move the seals into those areas, they now bring the sharks, because the sharks are there to feed on the seals, and every now and again you’ll have an interaction between a shark and a human.”
According to Collier, some scientists estimate that between 200-300 great whites now live along the Californian coast. However, like Caselle, Collier said scientists cannot be certain whether great whites are in real danger — though their population appears to be very small.
Scott Simon, manager of the Research Experience and Education Facility (REEF) at UCSB’s university aquarium and a staff research associate, said the development of animal-tracking technologies can help to monitor the great white population and work toward pinpointing a correlation between climate change and the sharks’ migration patterns.
“The technology used in monitoring large animals is still continuing to grow,” Simon said. “We could potentially use this data to understand, in light of climate change, changes in patterns of either the species in question or perhaps the prey.”
The state Fish and Game Commission will convene to pass a decision on the petition at a meeting on Feb. 6, and throughout the ensuing year, will conduct a review to decide if great white sharks should be registered as threatened or endangered under CESA.
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of January 22nd, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.
Photo courtesy of ocean.si.edu