By Asha Kreiling
The ocean’s most notorious and most feared creature is displaying some vulnerability of its own. Great white sharks are an incredibly fascinating but widely misunderstood species, as they are popularly known only as violent ocean predators and perpetuators of erratic attacks on human victims. Vital to balanced marine ecosystems, their role as a top predator makes great whites necessary for maintenance of its main prey’s population and all connected organisms lower down the food chain. The extinction of great white sharks would result in surges in prey populations and would have unpredictable consequences in ecosystem networks. Their dwindling population has caused environmental groups to push for their protection under California’s Endangered Species Act.
Commercial and sport fishing of great white sharks out to three miles in California state waters has been banned since 1994. In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill banning the sale or possession of shark fins, the essential ingredient of popular Chinese dish, shark fin soup. However, great whites, especially juveniles, are unintentionally caught in gill-nets, a fishing apparatus that targets halibut, swordfish and white sea bass off California and Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. While fisherman are supposed to throw them back into the water, there is no penalty for or limit on this unintentional catching or “bycatch” of great whites — a sort of loophole in existing environmental laws that still allows sharks to be killed.
After being presented evidence by state biologists and environmental groups that the great white population in two principal feeding grounds (off central California coast and Mexico’s Baja Peninsula) numbers less than 340, the California Fish and Game Commission voted last month to designate the great white shark as a candidate for the state’s endangered species list. This will launch a yearlong review by California’s Fish and Wildlife Department to determine whether they should formally classify great white sharks as an endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Department will examine factors that threaten the continued existence of great whites such as modification or destruction of habitat, overexploitation, disease, and human activities.
During this in-depth investigation, great whites will be treated as endangered, and will be entitled to the full legal protection afforded to a listed species. Fish and Wildlife will make exceptions on a case-by-case basis, and will require special permits for scientific research and in the case of accidental capture. Otherwise, anyone caught hunting, pursuing or killing great white sharks off the coast of California could face criminal prosecution.
Australia and South Africa already have designated their great white shark species as endangered. Early next year, conservationists and shark lovers hope California, too, will make the decision to permanently protect this great denizen of the deep.