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Oceana Magazine Fall 2012: Jaws in Jeopardy

By Rachael Prokop

Imagine for a moment if the movie “Jaws” were re-made, but instead of playing the man-eating villains, sharks were the victims. Massive fishing nets would entangle and drown young sharks, while humans frolicked, carefree, on the beach.

That movie could be made now, but it would be a documentary. Off the West Coast of the United States and Baja California, Mexico, the famed small population of great white sharks is facing the deadly specter of extinction, and Oceana is fighting to save them.

The villain in our story is the gillnet, a “curtain of death” hundreds of yards long that poses the single greatest threat to the future of these sharks. Gillnets are indiscriminate—they catch the fish they are intended for, and anything else swimming by. The region’s main gillnet fisheries are off southern California, waters that also happen to be a nursery for great whites.

The peak seasons for California halibut, white seabass, and swordfish, all targeted by gillnets, coincide with the season that young great white sharks congregate in these waters. Every year, on average over 10 great white shark pups are reported to be accidentally caught in these nets, and more, scientists believe, are unreported.

That may not sound like a large number, but recent studies estimate there are only a few hundred adult great white sharks left in the West Coast population, which is genetically distinct and geographically isolated from other white shark populations worldwide. 

Like humans, great white sharks mature slowly and have long pregnancies. A female great white pup will not be ready to breed until she’s about 12-14 years old, and once she does, she’ll only be able to give birth every other year at best. With such a slow reproductive rate, it’s hard for the population to replace pups lost to gillnets. And each pup that doesn’t make it to adulthood means there will be one less shark in the next generation’s mating pool.  Despite their dangerously low numbers, these animals are not currently listed under the Endangered Species Act. They should be. Such a listing could change their future and help propel them out of the path to extinction.

Along with the Center for Biological Diversity and Shark Stewards, Oceana petitioned both the federal government and the state of California to have the West Coast great white shark population protected as an endangered species. As a geographically isolated, genetically-distinct population whose numbers are so alarmingly low, these sharks fit the criteria of an endangered species.

In response to the petition, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined that the population merits further consideration for listing as an “endangered” or “threatened” species. Over the next nine months, NMFS will conduct an in-depth status analysis of the population and make a final determination of whether to add this population to the federal endangered list.

If these great whites are added to the Endangered Species List, they would be granted greater protections from gillnets and other human threats. These protections could include transitioning these fisheries to more responsible fishing methods, increasing observer coverage to ensure that we know how many sharks are being caught, setting hard limits on the amount of white sharks that can be caught as bycatch, or creating protected areas for the sharks.

"Great white sharks off the U.S. West Coast are in a perilous situation,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s senior director for the Pacific. “An endangered species listing of these powerful apex predators will provide a protective safety net, giving us more time to better understand the status of this unique population."

Great white sharks play an important role in ocean health. As top predators, great whites keep the ocean food web in balance, just like wolves and mountain lions keep deer populations in check. By hunting predatory marine mammals like seals and sea lions, sharks help keep fish populations healthy, which provide food for many species, including humans.

A lot is unknown about great whites—from their mating habits to the reasons behind their long migration patterns. Official recognition as an endangered species would bring more funding towards conservation research, giving us the tools to learn more and, in turn, better protect them before it is too late.

Without increased protections, the West Coast’s great white sharks could disappear forever, a fate that we simply can’t allow.