By Ted Danson, Andrew Sharpless
The great white shark -- a marine predator weighing more than 6,000 pounds, measuring 20 feet in length, and living more than 70 years -- is one of the most well-known sharks in the world. This ocean super-predator is also an essential part of marine ecosystems, playing a key role in keeping both our fisheries and ocean ecosystems healthy and resilient. The coastal waters off California and Mexico are home to a special population of white sharks that is genetically unique and isolated from all other groups of white sharks across the world's oceans.
But the Northeastern Pacific white shark population is at risk of extinction. Recent scientific studies estimate that there are less than 350 adult and sub-adult great white sharks left at the two known major aggregation sites where this population occurs. With so few breeding adults left, especially females that are slow to reproduce and have very few young, each shark is critically important. And what's worse, white shark pups are caught by the hundreds each year in gillnet fisheries off California and Mexico, further endangering the population.
Oceana petitioned both the federal government and the state of California to have the Northeastern Pacific great white shark population protected as an endangered species, affording the sharks temporary protections until a final decision could be made. Unfortunately, despite published scientific evidence that these sharks merit protection under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA), the California Fish and Game Commission recently chose not to list these sharks as endangered.
We are immensely disappointed with their decision, because it puts white sharks, our oceans, and our fisheries at risk. Protecting this species under the CESA would have been an important step to address the multitude of threats facing this unique population. Great white sharks are magnificent apex predators and a vital component of California's ocean ecosystem. Not only is the population dangerously low, but the remaining sharks are at great risk of being caught and killed as bycatch in gillnet fisheries. The federal government estimates that more than 200 young white sharks in this population are killed annually in Mexican and Californian gillnets. As a geographically isolated and genetically distinct population, with very few individual sharks left -- these sharks fit the criteria of an endangered species perfectly.
Prior to the Commission's decision, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended that the Commission not protect white sharks. They argued that protection was not warranted under the CESA because estimates suggest that there are between 339 and 3,000 white sharks in the population, and that fishermen are now reporting catching white sharks more frequently.
Yet the scientific literature does not contain any actual evidence of additional sub-adult and adult sharks beyond those estimated at the aggregation sites. With ongoing photo-ID and tagging studies, if there were more white sharks out there, scientists would have found them by now. Furthermore, basic common sense dictates that we need to err on the side of conservation when it comes to endangered species -- if scientific estimates are correct, there could be fewer than 50 breeding females in the entire population. We need to ensure that this amazing and essential species does not disappear from our oceans.
While the Commission failed to protect white sharks under the CESA, they did acknowledge that the bycatch, or unintended capture, of white shark pups in the set gillnet fishery is a significant conservation concern. The Commission's Marine Resource Committee plans to discuss the bycatch issue at its upcoming meeting in August, and Oceana will continue to pressure them to curtail shark bycatch through fisheries regulations.
Our oceans need great white sharks, and we do, too. These predators are immensely important to maintaining healthy and diverse oceans. They keep populations of other species healthy -- from sea lions and elephant seals down to small forage fish like anchovies. We need to ensure that white sharks get the protections they deserve, for the health of our oceans and our fisheries.