Have great white sharks been outfitted with the dark hat of villainy for no good reason other than humans’ primal fears of monsters lurking beneath the deep?
Scientifically speaking, it would appear so. Because the emotional fear of an animal that can grow to 20-feet long and 4,000 pounds is so strong, it’s questionable whether most coastal residents agree with the California Fish and Game Commission’s decision to study whether the marine predator should be added to the state’s endangered species roster.
Ocean and environmental advocates have been warning for years the number of white sharks has gotten dangerously low — and, since the sharks swim atop the marine food chain, this dwindling population indicates serious issues with the ocean’s ecosystem.
Some scientists, however, say it’s too early to list great whites as endangered — the data on whether the population is declining remains murky, they say, and putting great whites on the list could make it more difficult for more extensive studies. The sharks also are being considered for the federal endangered list.
Three environmental organizations last August filed a petition with the state asking the great whites in the northeastern Pacific Ocean be declared endangered. The groups cited recent studies estimating the adult white shark population at about 350 in that stretch of water, with fewer than 100 reproductive females.
The Fish and Game Commission agreed Wednesday to initiate a one-year review of the white shark population to see if the animal qualifies for the enhanced protection. The state already has banned the hunting of great whites in waters out to three miles off the coast. In 2011 and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill banning the sale or possession of shark fins. But the laws say nothing about another threat: Sharks killed accidentally in gill net fishing
Any enhanced protections will affect Southern California gillnet fisheries, which sometimes and inadvertently snag great whites while bottom fishing for halibut. Fishing groups are unhappy about new shark protections, citing a host of state regulations making it ever more difficult to fish in waters off the state.
Shark experts have said for years it’s more dangerous to drive to the beach than jumping in the water only to end up in “Jaws” and becoming underwater food for naught. There have been 13 documented deaths-by-great white shark in California since 1952, with the most recent off a beach in Santa Barbara County Oct. 22. That’s 13 deaths in 60 years, in a state where hundreds of thousands of people swim in the Pacific Ocean on any given summer day. Worldwide, there are about 100 reported shark “encounters” every year, with about 10 fatalities.
Scientists say great whites eat seals, sea lions, dolphins and fish, along with other sharks down the chain — and humans who end up in their toothy clutches are almost certainly mistaken for marine prey.
Another recent academic study took up the “politics” of shark attacks, nothing that there’s no basis for believing sharks have a taste for human flesh. The study’s Australian author urges that people, and the bloodthirsty media, stop using “kne- jerk” descriptions of shark encounters at every sighting. The result of this bad rap is that around the world, sharks are being hunted to the brink of extinction.
Much remains unknown about great whites, even if they aren’t the fearsome killers of nightmares. Better to take the year to learn more about great whites then waiting to see if there will be any sharks left to study.
This post is the Santa Cruz Sentinel Editorial for Feb. 7, 2013