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Are We Sharky Yet?

Disclaimer: I had a lot of pushback about publishing this column because of the great and largely irrational fear of the amazing species known as sharks. But unlike Brutus in Julius Caesar, I come to praise sharks, not to bury them.

By Billy Fried
By Billy Fried

I have sharks on my mind. Especially after seeing the viral video of the mighty Mick Fanning, who had just sleighed the greatest surfer in the land, only to be attacked by sharks in his finals round at Jeffreys Bay in South Africa. That was freaky enough, and then to see the ashen-faced Adonis looking absolutely undone was enough to make anyone think twice about tip toeing in the water.

One of the great challenges to operating a commercial paddle company in Laguna besides the city, the neighbors, the beachgoers, the competitors, the weather, and the mercurial ocean, is the dreaded five-letter word. Try as I might to avoid the mention of it when guests gather on the sand for their pre paddle orientation, you can see the look of terror in everyone’s eyes when one guest inevitably mutters, “Are there sharks?”

Of course I attempt to diffuse the question, confessing that I’ve never seen anything but little leopards in my 13 years of doing this. And that the big boys lurk much further away, where the water is colder and deeper. And that it’s why the sea lions thrive here. Still, their fear doesn’t abate. Then I use my lame joke about the only sharks I’ve seen are on land selling real estate. Bahaha. It gets a chuckle or two, and my haughty dismissal seems to calm their nerves a bit.

But lately we’ve heard and seen more shark sightings than normal just to the north and south of us. We saw a pod of orcas just off our shore. So it’s hard not to imagine that some of these suckers may cruise just a few miles over for the all-you-can-eat, seven-mile buffet known as the Laguna marine reserve. After all, they swim thousands of miles for prey. If they appear in Laguna it will be a testament to our healthy, restored fisheries.

My diver friends tell me it’s a Roman orgy of riches in our protected waters, and a barren desert just beyond it. In fact, Pearson’s Seafood Market under the Coast Highway bridge in Newport ended their local lobster season two weeks early this year, because there weren’t any. Yet our protected waters are brimming with them.

How else might we predict the imminent arrival of our pectoral friends? Look no further than little Reunion Island, a French surfing paradise off the east coast of Madagascar. Because of pollution and global warming, the reefs had become endangered. So the Island had the foresight to declare it a marine reserve in 2007, four years before we did. But in that time, shark attacks have ramped up considerably. Since 2011, there have been seven fatal attacks, the most recent being a 13 year-old surfer on April 14 of this year. Nine others have survived attacks.

An unintended consequence of a restored fishery? Who knows. But with a flourishing and bio-diverse marine habitat, and a large and protected sea lion and seal population, and more big fish like dorado and bluefin swimming closer to shore due to climate change, Laguna starts to look like a tasty destination for big fish.

Am I fear mongering, writing this piece at the height of tourist season? Hardly. Should you put your home up for sale? Absolutely not. Sharks are a vital part of the ocean’s ecosystem, thinning out populations that otherwise may overtake smaller species of fish. Fewer fish damages food security, hurts the health of the ocean, and reduces tourism dollars too.

Attacks in the Pacific are extremely rare. Globally the odds of being killed by a shark are 3,748,067 to 1. You are more likely to be killed by fireworks or lightning. There are just 70-100 shark attacks worldwide annually, with just five to 15 resulting in death. On the flip side, 100 million sharks are taken every year by humans. That is approximately 11,000 sharks killed every hour. Now that is absolutely terrifying!

To underscore this point, a group has formed called Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation, who, despite being bitten, all agree that sharks are beautiful and a vital part of the ocean ecosystem.

So if it happens, we don’t have to resort to mass hysteria and evacuate the town. Yes, it will undoubtedly make the news and thin our waters and beaches. Maybe that’s a good thing. It would most definitely devastate my business. That’s not a good thing. But I would live with it and accept that anything that takes place in the wild is vulnerable to wildness.

If you see a shark, do the smart thing and get out of the water immediately. Then call 911 and they will patch you through to Marine Safety.  They are mostly uninterested in humans. If you actually sense an attack, try and fight back. A swift Mick Fanning punch to the nose with a paddle or fist is known to startle them into a retreat.

I tell everyone who paddles with us you need not go to Africa to see big game. It’s all right here – blue and grey whales, sea lions and seals, and what Captain Dave in Dana Point claims is more dolphins off our waters than Hawaii, Alaska and Florida combined. Sure seems that way and who am I to question?

Seeing one more large fish in the menagerie of our majestic reserve seems logical to me.

 

Billy Fried sits on the boards of Transition Laguna and the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. He hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights on KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected].

 

 

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