News Column

Great White Sharks off California Coast Get More Protection

March 1, 2013

Cheri Carlson

Great White Sharks

Great white sharks off the California coast net an added layer of protection starting Friday.

State Department of Fish and Wildlife officials are reviewing whether the Northeast Pacific population of white sharks should be listed as threatened or endangered. The yearlong study was prompted by an earlier Fish and Game Commission decision to list the white shark as a candidate for such a designation.

"The California Endangered Species Act requires that a candidate species is treated the same as a listed species in terms of protection," said Michelle Horeczko, a senior environmental scientist with Fish and Wildlife.

Now, anyone who catches a white shark, even unintentionally, may face penalties unless they have a permit.

The rule is set to take effect today, when the notice of the commission's action is published in the state register. White sharks, also known as great white sharks, already have significant protection off the California coast, officials said.

Sport and commercial fishing for white sharks has been banned here since the mid-1990s. Exceptions were allowed, however, including for researchers and some in the fishing industry who might unintentionally net a great white.

The difference now is that any exception must be approved by state Fish and Wildlife officials, which will consider such permit requests on a case-by-case basis, Horeczko said.

A main threat to the white shark population is incidental capture in fishing nets. While targeting white sharks is prohibited, there are no limits on those unintended catches.

Those who pushed for the review say they hope the changes significantly limit incidental catches, said Ashley Blacow, Pacific policy and communications manager for Oceana, an international conservation group. Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and Shark Stewards jointly submitted petitions to state and federal agencies.

"This is an effort that the three organizations and a lot of supporters have put a lot of energy, effort and passion into," Blacow said. Petitions were prompted by recent research that the groups say found alarmingly low numbers of white sharks and threats to their habitat.

White sharks are known as one of the ocean's top predators. Scientists say they also are one of the least understood marine creatures.

There is some dispute about the size of the Northeast Pacific population, and officials say a lack of historic population counts makes it difficult to determine if they are declining.

Some biologists say they see signs that the population actually is increasing because of prior protections and gill net restrictions.

Horeczko said the state agency review will seek answers to such questions. The review will look at issues such as habitat threats, disease and other activities that may be affecting the species.

Some in the fishing industry have expressed concerns about increased regulations.

Chris Hoeflinger, a spokesman for the Ventura County Commercial Fishermen's Association, told The Associated Press last month that the changes would have a big impact. Before the commission's decision, Hoeflinger said California regulations make it more difficult to fish, and American consumers will have to rely more on imports.

Federal officials initiated a review of the white shark this fall and expect to publish findings by the end of June. If they show a federal listing is warranted, additional study and a public review process must take place before a final decision is made.

Shark sense

--Since 1950, officials say, there have been 100 white shark attacks on humans in California. Of those, 13 have been fatal.

--Adult white sharks grow to about 21 feet long. They eat fish, seals, sea lions, dolphins, whale blubber, seabirds, marine turtles, rays and other sharks.

--White sharks play a crucial role in the marine ecosystem by suppressing pinniped populations.

--Shark attacks often are believed to be cases of mistaken identity. Wearing a wet suit and fins, or lying on a surfboard creates the silhouette of a seal from below.

--To avoid white sharks, don't swim in areas frequented by sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals.

--Foggy mornings or dusk are ideal times to be mistaken for a seal.

Source: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

On the Net:

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Source: (c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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