Sightings Intensify Debate Over Sharks


Last week’s fatal shark attack on a body boarder near Santa Barbara County’s surfing Shangri-la, Hollister Ranch, made clear that the ocean remains in a sense, a wild place.

This summer a video of a juvenile white shark recorded by Chuck Patterson off San Onofre State Beach gained widespread attention. While unsettling, the presence of juvenile white sharks was known to surfers who frequent the break. Stand-up paddle racing champion Byron Kurt, of Dana Point, has had so many encounters that he doesn’t get out of the water. “I’ve had 20 sightings in the last year and a half, close enough where I could have stuck my paddle in the water and hit it if I wanted to. But they were very mellow. Nothing aggressive ever.”

Of greater concern were numerous sightings in late August of mature white sharks, 16 to 18 feet long, spotted 1,000 yards off Sunset Beach, a popular surf spot in Santa Monica. They prey on large marine mammals, unlike fish-eating juveniles that are not considered a threat to humans.

“Their presence at these numbers this year in local waters, is as far as I know, totally unprecedented,” said 50-year diver Patrick Smith, of Long Beach, a NOAA consultant and co-author of “Shipwrecks of Southern California.”

Despite more sightings, possibly due to the proliferation of people, cameras and mobile phones, shark attacks on humans along California’s coastline have not increased. Over 85 years, 98 people have reported injurious encounters with sharks, including 12 fatalities, according to University of Florida’s International Shark File. Neither does the published literature by pelagic experts show a spike in the population of sharks, listed as a threatened species by numerous conservations groups.

That, however, may change. Prominent white-shark researcher Chris Lowe, of Cal State Long Beach, claims more white sharks are thriving in Californian waters.

“We have some data that show the population may be increasing. And based on all the evidence, that is what we should expect to see,” said Lowe, whose research has yet to undergo peer review or publication.

Lowe’s expectations arise from several changes affecting shark habitat: a 1994 ban on gillnet fishing, which took a heavy toll on several species including white sharks; protections for white sharks enacted the same year; an increase in reports since 2001 by fishermen releasing juvenile white sharks caught as by-catch; and a flourishing population of seals and sea lions, white sharks’ food supply, since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972.

Jeffrey Graham, a 25-year white shark researcher at La Jolla’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography, remains skeptical.

“The general consensus is (white sharks) are over-fished. I would say there aren’t more than 10,000 in the whole world. I have heard no data to suggest there are more sharks present now than there were 20 years ago. Believe me, if there were that data, I would know about it.”

In fact, “depletion of top oceanic predators is a pressing global concern,” concluded a 2009 study by Sal Jorgenson and colleagues at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Lab.

The increase in sightings seems to contradict the research, which shows many shark species that lack the protections given white sharks are in decline.

“There are more eyes on the ocean. More communication about it, too,” said Scripps’ Graham. “Everything we know is much more magnified now than it was 10 to 15 years ago.”

Kurt, who has surfed at San Onofre since 1975, only spotted sharks in the last two years since undertaking stand-up paddling, which allows a higher vantage point.  “They’ve always been there. We are seeing a lot more because of the SUP population out there,” he said.

After the release of Peter Benchley’s book “Jaws” in 1975 and the movie the following year, shark reports spiked and then tapered off in the ‘80s, the second highest decade of shark attacks in the state when three people died. The worst periods occurred in the last decade and in the 1950s, when four people died in shark attacks in each 10-year period, according to state Fish and Game Department data.

Some suggest the increase in attacks on people reflects less about the shark population than the growing human one in the ocean.

While Lowe maintains the great white shark population probably has increased, he concedes attacks by sharks have not. “The more remote places are where human-shark encounters happen. Look at how many people are in the water at a place like Bolsa Chica on Labor Day. Do you see shark attacks there ever? No,” he said.

Jorgenson said more data is needed to conclude the white shark population is increasing. “The number is quite low, maybe lower than people would expect. I would be surprised to know the population is increasing because it is a species of concern. The indications that may suggest the white shark is increasing come from data on juvenile white sharks. They have different habitat than adults.”

Longtime local diver Nancy Caruso said she may have seen a great white 10 years ago, miles offshore in 2,000 feet of water. “Just as it saw me it turned around and swam away. They don’t like scuba divers. I rarely see a shark in Laguna if ever. I don’t worry about sharks at all.”

Free diver Bryan Menne spotted a shark he estimated to be six feet long about 30 years ago. He regularly sees smaller leopard and shovel-nose sharks, and recently thresher sharks. If there are more white sharks in the water, he attributes it to an increase in the seal population.

Jorgenson dismisses the connection. He said the pinniped populations have rebounded, but remain a fraction of their size prior to being hunted.

Lowe remains steadfast. “It’s remarkable that with a species like the white shark, with the worst reputation with humans, all these countries had the wherewithal to protect them. This is a success story. We should be happy. We don’t get them very often.”

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