Endangered Species Protections Sought for Great White Sharks Off U.S. West Coast

Survey conducted in 2011 points to just 350 adult Carcharodon Carcharias.

Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Shark Stewards have filed a petition with the U.S. federal government to list the great white shark (Carcharodon Carcharias) population that lives off the coast of California as an endangered species. The sharks off the West Coast of the United States are labeled as part of the northeastern Pacific population that is apparently genetically distinct and isolated from other great white sharks in the world’s seas and oceans. Scientific studies published in 2011 pegged the number of great whites off the West Coast at around 350 specimens, fewer than what was expected.

The three organizations say that the low reproductive rates of these animals, as well as slow growth rates, late maturity, and death in their first year of life further exacerbates their chances of survival. Gillnet fishing is the leading cause of death in great whites and are the main threat to their survival. Young sharks are also victims of incidental bycatch in commercial fishing. This type of fishing has low observer coverage, they say, which leads the groups to believe that more white sharks are caught than what is reported. Young great whites also have the second highest levels of mercury in their bodies and have the highest levels of PCB and DDT contaminants in their liver tissue.

Overzealous California pier fishermen have also caught, injured, and killed several juvenile great white sharks in the last several years. In July 2012, a fisherman hooked a juvenile great white shark off the Manhattan Beach pier and initially refused to cut the line when he was informed by the co-director of the Roundhouse Aquarium located on the pier that it was illegal to catch great white sharks. The co-director was able to eventually cut the line despite protests by the fisherman and his companions. Fisherman fishing off the Huntington Beach pier in August 2011 caught and killed a juvenile great white shark that they apparently thought was a mako shark.

A juvenile great white shark captured in a seine net off Malibu beach in the summer of 2011 was sent to the Monterey Bay Aquarium where it lived for 55 days before it was released. It died several days after it was released back into the ocean. This marked the first time a juvenile white shark died after spending time at the aquarium, which has a policy of releasing the animals back into the ocean if the shark displays any signs of stress.

Contrary to what is seen in the movies and read in books, the great white shark is not a menace, but rather keeps the California sea lion and elephant seal populations in check, ensuring diversity of the ecosystems in which they inhabit. Protections under the Endangered Species Act would give scientists funding for research to better understand the threats and the status of the great white shark off the West Coast of the United States, the groups say.

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