Feds to decide if great white sharks are endangered species
By Jason Hoppin
SANTA CRUZ -- Federal regulators will decide whether to list West Coast great white sharks as an endangered species, taking up an invitation by Northern California environmental groups to weigh added protections for the feared, near-mythical ocean predator.
The decision triggers a yearlong assessment of the shark population here, which is believed to number less than 400. Despite their prominence in American popular culture -- Shark Week, anyone? -- very little is known about white sharks, with even their numbers only recently being estimated.
"This elevates it to the next step. It's showing that they're taking it seriously and that they're going to make a full-blown analysis over the next year to make a final determination," said Geoff Shester, state program director for Oceana, one of the groups seeking the designation. "It's the first major hurdle that this petition has had to go through."
Oceana joined with the Center for Biological Diversity, Shark Stewards and WildEarth Guardians for the petition. The groups hope the action leads to more research dollars, but also greater protections when it comes to fishing methods such as gill nets, long under fire from environmentalists.
"That's one of the things that were pushing for, is to address that issue of the bycatch," or accidentally netting a shark, Shester said.
One potential hurdle is that there simply is no baseline for shark populations -- no one knows if their numbers are headed up or down. Sea otters and whales were formerly commodities, so when their numbers dwindled it was understood that they were on a trajectory toward extinction.
But Shester said the population is so low that great whites must be protected.
"One of the pieces to look at is, even if there was three times that amount, it's a huge concern. It's a high, inherent concern of the population going extinct," he said.
Sharks were spotted periodically over the summer near Santa Cruz County beaches, and the rookery at Año Nuevo is a haven for them, where they feed on seals and sea lions. They also have been increasingly cited as a leading cause of death for sea otters, though otters are not part of their diet.
"Great white sharks are incredible species that have survived for eons along the West Coast. Sadly, they're in deep trouble right now, so we're glad to see them a step closer to getting the help they need to survive," said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Recent research has turned up surprising details about great whites, including the existence of the "white shark café," an area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where sharks congregate, despite little food in the area, and engage in epic deep-sea dives of 1,000 feet or more.
And to this day, scientists have never observed white shark breeding or birthing activities.
The process of deciding whether to list great whites under the Endangered Species Act is in the hands of the National Marine Fisheries Service. A decision typically takes about a year.
Copyright © 2012 San Jose Mercury News.
This article originally appeared here.
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