Saving White Sharks

Statewide Protections on Horizon for Toothy Beasts

<b>APEX PREDATOR:</b> With a habitat that spans the globe, the great white shark — seen here in the waters off Isla Guadalupe, Mexico — is only one of about 12 shark species that swim Santa Barbara Channel. Great whites can reach 20 feet in length, weigh up to 5,000 pounds, and have a lifespan of roughly 30 years.

Though plenty of us tremble at the thought of a great white shark chomping us during a swim or surf, it’s really the sharks who should be scared of humans, as our society’s practices have played a large role in decimating the species’s populations around the globe. Because of this trend, California decision-makers are considering whether the species should be listed statewide as endangered or threatened, and the state’s recently renamed Department of Fish and Wildlife is now accepting public comments on the plan.

To get a better sense of what that means for the sharks and humans, and why now, the department’s Michelle Horeczko answered a few questions last week over email.

Tell us something fascinating about the white shark.

Female white sharks experience a long breeding process, not only in relation to other sharks and fish, but in comparison with terrestrial mammals as well. Though we are still learning about how this species reproduces, it is agreed upon by most researchers that they experience a gestation period of approximately 18 months. This explains why mature females are only seen at the breeding/aggregation sites every two or three years. A single female can give birth to up to 14 pups at one time, and newborn white sharks are four to five feet long at birth.

It seems like we’ve gone away from the use of great white? Why?

“White Shark” is the official common name accepted by the American Fisheries Society and other scientific organizations for this species. “Great White Shark,” “White Pointer,” and other names are commonly used in vernacular by the English-speaking public globally when referring to this species.

I assume that our fears of the toothy beast far outweigh its actual rate of attacks?

Correct. You are much more likely to be struck by lightning or win a jackpot lottery than attacked by a white shark (or any shark). Since 1950, there have been 101 white shark attacks on humans in all of California. Of those, 13 have now been fatal. Most of these attacks occur in northern California where adult white sharks are seen near shore more often. Only 17 of the 100 shark attacks on humans in California within the past 63-year period have been south of Point Conception.

CDFW has more in depth information on white shark encounters here.

Why is the white shark up now for listing?

The Fish and Game Commission received a petition to list white shark as either threatened or endangered pursuant to CESA in August 2012. The Commission’s decision to accept the petition (the potential concerns raised in the petition met the standard required under state law to be considered for further examination) and declare white shark a candidate species took effect March 1, 2013.

CDFW is conducting an in-depth status review to provide the Commission with information to aid in its decision whether to list the species. The status review is slated for completion by March 2014. As part of the status review process, CDFW is soliciting information that will inform CDFW and the Commission on white shark status, including potential habitat destruction or modification, overexploitation, predation, competition, disease or other natural occurrences or human related activities that may affect the status of white shark.

Information on the CESA listing process, evaluation and the petition can be found here.

What protections would it get?

White sharks are already afforded numerous protections under state law, and take has been strictly prohibited off California since 1994, with some exceptions for scientific research and incidental (un-intentional) take in some commercial fisheries. Under CESA, all take would become prohibited unless authorized on a case-by-case basis by CDFW under special permit, including for research.

California Endangered Species Act (CESA) prohibits the take of listed or candidate or listed species, even if that take is incidental to otherwise lawful activity, unless authorized by permit. As defined in state law, take means “hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill or attempt to hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill.” Anyone who takes a white shark without a permit may be cited for violations of CESA and subject to criminal prosecution.

What new regulations would result? And who might be opposed to those?

If white shark were to become a listed species under the CESA, all take (to hunt, pursue, capture, or kill) would become prohibited, included scientific take and accidental(incidental) take in recreational commercial fisheries. Any take, even non-lethal catch and release take for scientific research, would be illegal unless specifically authorized under special permit by the CDFW under CESA. As part of the candidacy evaluation process, the Fish and Game Commission will hear comments and concerns from scientists and the general public on the implications of listing as part of the CESA candidacy process.

As part of the 12-month evaluation process, the CDFW will present a report to the Fish and Game Commission that may include recommendations for regulatory and management changes. This report is expected to be completed by March 2014.

What’s the chance of a federal listing?

The status of the decision to federally list white shark should be released in July 2013.


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