By ELIZABETH LARSON, special to Corona del Mar Today
The California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously Wednesday afternoon to move the great white shark into candidacy for a state Endangered Species Act listing.
The famed apex predator’s North Eastern Pacific population, found off the West Coast between Alaska and Mexico, will now become the subject of a one-year review to determine if it will be listed as an endangered species.
“This is an iconic species for the ocean,” said commission President Michael Sutton as he and his colleagues prepared to vote at the end of the hour-and-a-half-long hearing.
Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and Shark Stewards submitted the state listing petition last August.
At the same time, they submitted a federal Endangered Species Act listing petition for the shark. The National Marine Fisheries Service is now reviewing that petition, with a decision expected in 2013.
After an extensive petition review, California Department of Fish and Wildlife staff recommended that the commission advance the North Eastern Pacific great white shark population to candidacy.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Mandy Lewis gave the commission a presentation on the listing petition evaluation.
Based on the agency’s evaluation criteria, Department of Fish and Wildlife staff concluded the petition contained sufficient scientific information and that action may be warranted, she said.
However, Lewis pointed out that there also is contrary information available that will need to be considered, specifically, population estimate trends and abundance estimates, the degree and immediacy of threat and the impacts of existing management on the great white shark’s West Coast population.
While the great white shark is found throughout the world, the North Eastern Pacific population is genetically distinct and does not interbreed with other populations found elsewhere, Lewis said.
West Coast great whites aren’t distributed equally through their range, Lewis said. While they’ve been found from Alaska to Mexico’s southern tip, they tend to be found more commonly in aggregation areas which have large seal and sea lion populations. Two of those areas on the California coast include Tomales Point and the Farallon Islands.
She said not a lot is known about great white shark breeding, as no one has witnessed it.
The sharks spend the late fall and winter near central and Southern California, going as far south as Guadalupe Island, Mexico, Lewis said. In spring they move into places like the shared offshore foraging area, also called the great white shark café, located between Southern California and Hawaii.
In late spring and early summer, female great whites go to an area offshore of Southern California where their pups are born. After giving birth, the females go back to the main aggregation sites, Lewis said.
Great white shark research history is not very long and is limited, so even if with a population estimate, there is no historic population estimates with which to compare it, Lewis explained.
The listing petition included an abundance estimate of 339 adults and subadults, a number which Lewis told the commission Wednesday is not definitive, with concerns that it’s incomplete. To get a complete population picture, she said juvenile population trends must be considered.
Key concerns about the sharks include the high levels of DDT and PCBs found in juvenile white sharks. While such large predators tend to bioaccumulate pollutants, Lewis said the high levels in shark tissue are not detrimentally affecting their ability to reach a mature age and reproduce.
A main threat to the sharks is believed to be gillnets, which are known to capture juveniles, although Lewis said adult sharks usually are able to break through the nets.
Also noted during Lewis’ presentation is a large increase in sea otter mortality due to white shark bites. Lewis said that could mean more white sharks are moving into areas where sea otters live.
Strong support for candidacy; opponents question data
Of the 24 people who addressed the commission about the proposed candidacy, 19 spoke in favor of it and five spoke against it.
Assemblyman Paul Fong (D-Cupertino) was first to the podium during public comment to offer his support. He’s been dubbed the “shark champion” of the California Assembly for his work as principal author of AB 376, which banned the shark fin trade in California – a bill which has survived an initial challenge in federal court, Sutton pointed out.
Loss of such an apex predator in a marine ecosystem can have devastating consequences, said Fong. For the West Coast, losing the great white shark, he suggested, could start a much larger decline of overall ocean health.
“California must maintain its leadership in shark protection,” said Fong, who presented the commission with a letter signed by fellow state legislators supporting the petition candidacy.
Dr. Geoff Shester, California program director for Oceana, said white sharks have an “irreplaceable role” in the ocean ecosystem.
Shester called them magnificent, powerful and inquisitive creatures. “The population is clearly at risk,” Shester said, explaining that the white shark situation is exactly what the Endangered Species Act was meant to address.
Bycatch remains unregulated, and he said the endgame isn’t just an endangered species listing for the white shark but actively managing the bycatch threat to juvenile great whites.
Sutton noted that there also are issues with what is happening with great whites in Mexican waters.
“They are killing a lot of sharks in Mexico,” he said, adding that as part of the status review it would be important to get a handle on what is going on south of the border.
Bill Adams, representing the California Coalition of Diving Advocates, argued that white sharks already get a substantial amount of protection under existing laws, and he didn’t see data justifying further protection.
“California is a very minute part of its range and that’s even speculative,” he said.
Santa Barbara commercial fisherman Andrew Rasmussen said he also opposed the listing, noting he’s only caught a few juvenile white sharks in the last several years, one of which was released alive and the other given to scientists for research.
Rasmussen said statements about a dwindling population come from extremists. Based on his own observations, “There’s a lot more white sharks around than there was 10 years ago,” he said, adding, “Anyone that says the population is dwindling is not being honest.”
Dr. Chris Harrold, director of research programs for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said the aquarium was supportive of the listing candidacy.
Since 2004, the aquarium has showcased a half-dozen young great white sharks for periods of up to six and a half months, introducing them to more than three million visitors, according to Harrold.
Harrold said that while the state review process takes place this year, the Monterey Bay Aquarium will not collect a young great white shark for exhibit.
He said they hope that any listing decision regarding California’s white sharks will include policies under which white sharks can continue to be studied in California waters and collected for exhibit.
Harrold said the great white shark has proved to be a “powerful ambassador” in helping the public understand their importance.
While Commissioner Jim Kellogg said he’s been very critical of such listing proposals over the years, he supported the white shark’s candidacy and review.
His colleague Richard Rogers agreed. Rogers said many petitions seemed based more on fundraising for organizations. “This particular petition, however, does concern me,” he said.
Rogers said it was incredibly important to evaluate the great white shark’s situation, suggesting they may find there are a lot more of them. “We still may end up listing the animal.”
Sutton said the carnage of the international shark fin trade may lead some people to believe that all sharks are endangered. The law requires that the commission look at all petitions on their own merits.
“Not all shark species are created equal and we must look at this one carefully,” Sutton said before the unanimous vote.
This story appeared originally in the Lake County News. Email Elizabeth Larson at email@example.com . Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.