California Great White Sharks May Get Endangered Species Status
February 7, 2013

California’s Great Whites May Get Endangered Species Protection

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

On Wednesday, California's Fish and Game Commission recommended that the endangered status be given to great white sharks in the waters under their jurisdiction.

Based on a recent population survey that found fewer than 340 adult sharks inhabiting the two principal feeding areas off the central California coast and the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, the five-member commission voted unanimously to designate the great white as a candidate for state protection.

The unprecedented designation will launch a yearlong review of the shark population by California's Fish and Wildlife Department. That agency is scheduled to decide whether the shark warrants protection as threatened or endangered species in February 2014. Ultimately, however, the Fish and Game Commission will make the final decision on the legal status of great whites.

Wednesday´s decision could ultimately mean tougher rules for the fishing industry and could potentially open the door for legal action against coal-fired power plants, since shark carcasses have been found to contain high levels of mercury, a by-product of burning coal.

"There is a lot of evidence that white shark population numbers are very low," Emily Jeffers, an attorney for the San Francisco based Center for Biological Diversity, told Mercury News.

"White sharks are really barometers of our ocean's ecosystem," she explained. "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."

The sharks have been off limits to commercial fishermen since 1994, when then-governor Pete Wilson signed the ban into state law. In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown further beefed up the sharks´ protection by signing a bill that bans the sale or possession of shark fins.

However, these laws have a stipulation — what some consider a loophole — that allows for the accidental by-catch of white sharks. If the sharks were officially designated as endangered next year, many expect that new, even stricter measures will be implemented to minimize by-catch.

There have also been recent signs that the sharks may receive additional protection outside of California as well. In September, the US Marine Fisheries Service ruled that listing the sharks as endangered could be warranted and a final decision on proposing the great whites for formal protection is expected in June.

Worldwide, great white sharks are estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, with other major great white populations living near Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Both Australia and South Africa have already designated their shark populations as endangered.

The sharks have long captured the imagination, inspiring Peter Benchley's 1974 novel "Jaws" and the major motion picture of the same name. Despite their reputation as ruthless killing machines, white sharks rarely attack people in California, and there have only been 13 documented shark-related fatalities since 1952.

"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," vice president of the commission Mike Sutton told Mercury News. "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? Is the population stable?"