In movies, TV shows, novels and scientific papers, great white sharks have been called everything from killing machines to misunderstood predators who are key to healthy ocean environments. Now they may be called something else: endangered.
California's state Fish and Game Commission on Wednesday will decide whether to move forward with the process of adding the ocean's most storied marine predator to the state endangered species list. The U.S. government, already reviewing the issue, is expected to make a final decision this summer whether to add great whites to the federal endangered species list.
If the sharks -- which can grow to 21 feet and 4,000 pounds in California waters -- join other struggling species like California condors and sea otters on the lists, it could mean tougher rules on gill net fishing. It could even create a new legal tactic for environmental groups to fight coal-fired power plants and other polluters, since some white sharks have been found with high levels of mercury, which comes from burning coal, and other pollutants in their tissue.
"There is a lot of evidence that white shark population numbers are very low," said Emily Jeffers, an attorney in the oceans program of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group in San Francisco that supports an endangered listing.
"White sharks are really barometers of our ocean's ecosystem. If they're not doing well, we need to figure out why. They are at the top of the food chain. If we want a healthy ocean, we need healthy sharks."
Jeffers' group, along with two other environmental organizations, Oceana and Shark Stewards, filed a formal petition last August with the state asking that the Northeastern Pacific population of white sharks be declared endangered. The groups noted that two recent studies have estimated the population -- which ranges between Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska -- at roughly 339 adults and sub-adults as part of counts off the Marin County coast and Mexico.
That's a dangerously small number, they say, calling the sharks "at great risk of extinction," particularly since half or fewer are females.
Although they were made famous as ruthless killers by Peter Benchley's 1974 novel "Jaws" and Steven Spielberg's 1975 film of the same name, white sharks in California rarely attack people. In fact, more people have died from bee stings and dog bites.
Although millions of people swim every year in the Pacific Ocean, since 1952 there have been 13 documented fatalities by white sharks in California, the last one coming off Surf Beach in Santa Barbara on Oct. 22. White sharks eat fish, seals, sea lions, dolphins, sea birds, marine turtles, rays and other sharks.
"The likelihood of humans being attacked is so small," said John McCosker, chairman of aquatic biology at the California Academy of Sciences. "You are safer in the water than you are driving to the beach."
In 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson banned the hunting of sharks in state waters out to three miles. And in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown banned the sale or possession of shark fins. But the laws have a loophole, allowing white sharks to be killed accidentally in fishermen's gill nets.
Last month, state biologists said there is sufficient scientific information for the Fish and Game Commission to move ahead with listing white sharks as threatened or endangered.
Mike Sutton, vice president of the commission, said he expects the five-member body to agree. If that happens, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife will spend a year researching the issue, and the commission will take a final vote next spring. Most important, however, if the commission votes yes on Wednesday, the state's endangered species protections would take effect immediately pending a final decision.
"This is an iconic marine species. It is the species that everybody gets out of the way for. We see that at the aquarium. It inspires people. It epitomizes the marine environment," said Sutton, a former vice president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. " We need to answer some of the questions posed by the scientists. Is the species in decline or is this low number the norm for the species, and the population is stable?"
Sutton said that if the commission approves moving forward with listing, a group of fishermen off Ventura, Long Beach and San Diego who use gill nets fixed on the ocean floor to catch halibut and other species would have 90 days to apply for "incidental take permits" or they could be shut down. That's because their nets have been found to entangle and drown between five and 25 juvenile great whites a year, the largest source of human-caused mortality off California.
Such permits could change the seasons that the fishermen -- who catch a sizable portion of California's halibut -- fish. Or they could require them to bring up their nets every 24 hours, reducing the risk of killing young sharks.
Several of the state's top white shark biologists say it is premature to list sharks as endangered. McCosker, for example, said that researchers don't know whether their population is increasing or decreasing. There is some evidence it is increasing, he noted, including the fact that more sea otters have been found dead in recent years with shark bites.
Chris Lowe, director of Cal State Long Beach's Shark Lab, said the number of juvenile sharks caught in gill nets in Southern California has increased to about 20 to 25 a year, up from about five a year a decade earlier. That likely means there are more sharks, he said. Lowe worried that listing the animals would make it more difficult for scientists to study them -- and would harm fishermen who have been helping researchers.
He also noted that roughly half the sharks caught in the nets die, but the others have a 96 percent survival rate after being freed.
Still, environmental groups say that because of the unknowns, the best approach is to add another layer of protection.
"The fact that we don't know enough -- and what we do know indicates a low population --is a reason to be cautious," Jeffers said. "It's always better to be cautious than to find out in a few years that we should have done something."
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