By Mark Prado
Great white sharks that cruise off the shores of Marin will not be afforded any added protection via California's Endangered Species Act, a state agency ruled this week.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission voted not to list the Northeast Pacific population of white shark as threatened or endangered.
A trio of groups, including Sausalito-based Shark Stewards, had asked for the protection based on recent studies showing the population between 200 and 400 roaming in a section of sea from the Monterey Bay, Farallon Islands, north of Marin to Bodega Bay and west to Hawaii.
"The commission felt that there is other data out there that suggests great whites don't merit any further protection," said David McGuire, Shark Stewards program director. "They think the number is greater than what some studies have shown. But we see the numbers out there as alarming, especially when given the risks of domestic fishing, pollution and loss of habitat."
Under California law that went into place in 1994, it is illegal to take great white sharks whether it's sports fishing or commercially. Protection under the Endangered Species Act would have afforded the species more protections, including prohibiting accidental take of the sharks.
"We agree with the petitioners that incidental take is an issue," said Michelle Horeczko, senior environmental scientist with fish and wildlife. "But the report was peer-reviewed, and we didn't think it was an issue that would cause extinction."
Bolstering the state view was another study by the National Marine Fisheries Service that put the population closer to 3,000. Renowned shark expert and Mill Valley resident John McCosker said the commission made the correction decision, saying new data will be out soon corroborating the higher population.
"We are seeing more attacks on marine mammals indicating the numbers are up," he said. "It's important that you protect animals that need protection and not your favorites. There are too many of them to consider them for the list. But white sharks are very important and their populations need to be watched."
In particular in the ecosystem sharks help keep the seal and sea lions populations in check.
The sharks continue to be a mystery, helping to lead to the varying population estimates. While white sharks live for decades, they are not believed to reproduce rapidly. Male white sharks become sexually mature at around 10 years old, with females becoming mature at around 15 years. They can have between two and 14 pups per litter with the gestation period lasting about 12 months. Each pup is about 5 feet long at birth with a full set of teeth. They can grow up to 21 feet in length, according to state scientists.
Adult sharks feed on fish, seals, sea lions, dolphins, scavenged whale blubber, seabirds, turtles, rays as well as other sharks, according to state fish and wildlife scientists.
Tomales Point, Stinson Beach, Duxbury Reef off Bolinas and other spots off of Marin are known to attract sharks because of the abundance of marine mammals.
The county has been one of the prime spots for great white shark attacks over the years; 12 people have been attacked off the Marin coast, the most in the state. San Mateo and Monterey have seen 11 attacks, Sonoma and San Diego nine. Of the 101 recorded attacks in the state, 13 have been fatal.
Sharks do not target humans, but they do confuse people with other prey such as seals, experts say. Typically, if a shark bites into a human it will release the person, realizing the mistake. But the powerful physiology of the adult beast — between 1,500 and 4,000 pounds and razor-sharp serrated teeth — is sometimes enough to doom a human with one bite.