The biggest, scariest predator cruising the world’s oceans isn’t so invincible, after all.
Three environmental groups are working to get the great white shark listed as “endangered” or “threatened” in California, citing studies that indicate there are only about 300 sharks left off the state’s coast.
“Great white sharks, even though they’re predators, are extremely vulnerable and play a really important role in our ecosystem,” said Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans director for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, to TakePart.
The Center for Biological Diversity, along with two other environmental advocacy groups, Oceana and Shark Stewards, filed a petition in August to list the shark as endangered or threatened under the California Endangered Species Act.
On February 6, the California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to give the shark “candidacy” status for state protection, following the petition filed from the three environmental groups. The California Fish and Wildlife Department will spend the next year reviewing the great white shark and will decide next spring whether or not to grant a listing of “threatened,” “endangered,” or no listing at all, explained Tara Thornton, program director for the Endangered Species Coalition, to TakePart. The three groups that filed the petition are all member groups of the Endangered Species Coalition, a national network of wildlife organizations.
“[The commission] showed a strong recognition that white sharks are not only iconic in our ecosystem but extremely important for our fisheries and wildlife,” said Geoff Shester, the California program director for Oceania, to TakePart.
While under review, the great white shark will be given the same protections as though it is already listed as endangered under California law, said Adrianna Shea, deputy director for the California Fish and Game Commission, to TakePart.
The population of great white sharks off the coast of California is very low and also genetically distinct from other sharks across the world, putting them at a noticeable risk for extinction, explained Shester. Two recent studies, when combined, estimated that the shark population off of California is only about 339 adults and sub-adults—making reproduction a concern.
The environmental groups cited a number of causes for the shark’s dwindling population, including pollution, climate change, toxic contaminants and so forth. However, the primary threat emphasized is bycatch, when gillnet fisheries unintentionally catch great white sharks—particularly babies. Fisheries off the coast of California and Mexico often accidentally catch juvenile sharks, and while the direct fishing of these sharks is banned, bycatch remains “a significant problem,” reads the petition.
“The basic objective that we’re trying to get accomplished is to have the commission start actively managing that bycatch,” Shester said.
As an apex predator, the great white shark is important to the ecosystem and marine food chain, the petition explains. The groups hope to get additional tools for the management of these sharks, including more independent observers on fishery boats to keep track of bycatch and more research on the shark’s population.
Some members of the scientific community and fishermen expressed disapproval of the petition or elements of the petition at the commission’s meeting, according to Shea.
However, “thousands of residents” have expressed their support for the endangered species listing since the petition was submitted, Shester said.
“There’s an outpouring of public interest in protecting white sharks right now, including [in] the surfing community, of all folks,” he added.
If the great white shark is given an endangered or threatened listing, there may be limits in fishing to protect the animal, such as closing down particularly biologically sensitive areas during the season, for example, Sakashita said. Currently, the great white shark is also under review by the National Marine Fisheries Service to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act; a decision is expected this June.
Following the yearlong review, the state commission will decide the great white shark’s listing next spring.