Tuesday, May 31 , 2016, 10:33 am | Overcast 58º

State to Study Great White Sharks for Possible Protection

By Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @magnoli |

After a year-long review by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Fish and Game Commission will consider listing the great white shark as a threatened or endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act.

Commissioners were petitioned by Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and Shark Stewards to consider more protections for the North Eastern Pacific white shark.

By declaring the species as a candidate for listing under CESA, the commission started a status review process. At the end of it, commissioners will decide whether the species should be listed as threatened or endangered.

The sharks already are protected under federal and state law, and it’s illegal for anyone to take, possess or sell a great white shark except in rare circumstances when being used for scientific research purposes.

The North Eastern Pacific white shark, also known as great whites, are considered genetically unique from other populations of white sharks near Australia and South Africa, according to the DFW.

Petitioners argued that the great white population is in peril, although the DFW evaluation stated that the population size can’t be determined.

Andrew Rasmussen, a commercial fisherman from Santa Barbara, told the commission he opposed the petition, and has caught only two juvenile white sharks in the last five years of gill net fishing. One was released live with a tag, and one was given to research, he said.

He’s worked with Christopher Lowe, at CSU Long Beach’s Shark Lab, and experts are only seeing five to 15 animals a year from gill net fisheries, and half of those are released, Rasmussen said.

“What we’re talking about is somewhere around four to eight animals a year that are killed,” he said. If sharks average about eight pups, these numbers only show limiting the reproductive capacity of one animal.

“If you use that as the criteria to list something as endangered, then all of the businesses in California are in a lot of trouble,” he said.

He and other commercial fishermen who spoke at the meeting said shark sightings and attacks are increasing, at least anecdotally.

Commissioners said they do get tired of receiving petitions of this nature, but believed the petition at least warranted the year of status review.

“It’s an iconic species for the ocean,” Commissioner Michael Sutton said.

There are many species of sharks that aren’t endangered, and can even be fished, but the candidacy finding is important to launch the status review, he said.

“Not all shark species are created equal,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Kellogg supported the review, but not the implication that fishing practices have contributed to a low shark population in the area.

“I don’t believe commercial fishermen in California have in any way been responsible for low levels of white sharks,” he said.

With news of the commission’s decision, petitioners celebrated this week.

“As the apex predator in the California Coastal Upwelling Ecosystem, white sharks play a vital role in the health of that system,” David McGuire, director of Shark Stewards, wrote in a prepared statement. “We are hopeful that the commission will follow the lead of federal recommendations to further investigate the impacts on this population and the population status to ensure these sharks will continue to survive.”

Locally, there have been many more sightings and attacks from great whites recently.

Two men were attacked and killed at Surf Beach near Vandenberg Air Force Base within two years, and authorities set up warnings for local beaches throughout the summer after sightings were made.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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