In the ongoing fight to protect the distinct population of great white sharks off the coast of California and Mexico, Oceana submitted a critical analysis of the federal Biological Review Team’s (BRT) status report used by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) as the basis for their decision not to list this West Coast population of apex predators under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
When Oceana first began its work to protect critically endangered Pacific leatherbacks off the U.S. West Coast, we had no idea that these prehistoric turtles would eventually provide a global link to connect us to conservationists half way across the planet.
Though you might not know it, California, Oregon, and Washington waters are home to deep-sea cold water corals that are every bit as brilliant and fascinating as their tropical counterparts. These corals explode with color and texture while playing an important role in our ocean ecosystems. Corals provide shelter, protection from strong currents and predators, and important areas for feeding, spawning, resting, and breeding.
We are alarmed by the recent decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) not to provide needed protections for U.S. West Coast great white sharks under the federal Endangered Species Act. NMFS declined protections despite current science estimates of only a few hundred sub-adult and adult white sharks at their primary aggregation sites. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) petition submitted by Oceana and its partners to NMFS met all the legal criteria and demonstrated through the best available science that this special population of great white sharks clearly warrants protections under the ESA.
We can breathe a momentary sigh of relief. This Monday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously to maintain protections off California and Oregon for the critically endangered population of Pacific leatherback sea turtles. However, in 2014 these federal fishery managers will consider another proposal for allowing driftnets into sea turtle habitat southwest of Monterey, California.
At the meeting a few days ago in Tacoma, Washington, the Council considered a full array of proposals to expand the use of drift gillnets off California and Oregon and into an area currently designated to protect Pacific leatherback sea turtles. But Oceana—with the help of our partners, and support of our avid Wavemakers—successfully thwarted those efforts by presenting new science on the decline of leatherback sea turtles; by revealing scientific data showing massive wasteful bycatch of large whales, dolphins, sharks, and other fish by the drift gillnet fishery; and by bringing forward the public uproar over the proposed expansion of the driftnet fishery into a currently protected area.
Mile-long drift nets hang like invisible curtains in the water column to catch swordfish, but they unselectively entangle other marine life traversing through the open ocean. To numerically paint the portrait of this wasteful fishery, for every five swordfish caught in 2011, one marine mammal was killed and six fish were tossed back dead. When it comes to whales, this fishery takes many species, but one of particular concern is the sperm whale. The largest of the toothed whales, sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal and it is estimated that 16 of these amazing endangered whales were taken in the drift gillnet fishery in 2010 alone.
An endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle swims through the cold, nutrient-rich waters off California where it has made an impressive journey from its nesting beaches in Indonesia to feed on jellyfish. But, it encounters an unwelcome surprise, a mile long drift net in which its flipper becomes entangled.
Because this net sits overnight in the water column to catch its targeted commercial species, swordfish and thresher sharks, this net will not be pulled up until the following morning. In the meantime, the sea turtle is unable to surface for air and drowns. The drift gillnet fishery takes, on average, 138 marine mammals per year including sperm whales, humpback whales, pilot whales, minke whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions—not to mention thousands of sharks and other fish. The vast majority of those animals are dumped back into the ocean, dead or injured.
Due to concerns over bycatch resulting from the use of drift gillnets, Washington and Oregon have prohibited fishermen in their state from using these destructive nets off their coast. This leaves California as the only west coast state still allowing this deadly gear.
It’s official; as of today, California’s great white sharks are now fully protected under the California Endangered Species Act! As new candidates for protection under this law, while the state of California considers permanent actions, the ocean’s most iconic sharks will now receive the exact same legal protections afforded to other listed endangered species, placing them in the company of the furry sea otter and the majestic blue whale. As of today, it is now a criminal offense to pursue, catch, or kill a white shark in California. With recent population estimates of fewer than 350 adult white sharks, this action may be just in time to keep them from extinction.
The main threat to great whites is incidental capture in drift and set gillnets which together target swordfish, thresher sharks, halibut, and white seabass. Since the 1980s there has been an average of over 10 reported interactions of great white sharks in these gillnets annually, and up to 30 reports in a single year. The number of observers who go out to sea on these fishing vessels and document bycatch is currently very low, so we don’t know the full extent of this bycatch. Also of concern is what scientists call post-release mortality. While some great whites are released from gillnet capture alive, others die shortly after from severe damage inflicted to their organs and internal bleeding. Bycatch in fisheries, under-reporting, and post-release mortality, in culmination with a low population size, slow growth, and a low reproductive rate could be enough to jeopardize the recovery of the unique population of great white sharks off California.
The unique population of great white sharks off California has been awarded ‘candidacy’ status under the California Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Game Commission unanimously voted to advance white sharks to candidacy at their February 6 meeting in the Golden State’s capital city, Sacramento.
We are thrilled that the Commission carefully considered comments from fishermen, scientists, environmental groups, and the public to arrive at the decision that this iconic species of shark merits additional protections and that we need to know more about these amazing apex predators.
Being a candidate for protection under the California Endangered Species Act means the state will consider an array of possible management measures that can be put into place to reduce bycatch of white sharks. Possible measures include time and area closures of the fisheries where white sharks are caught, modifications to fishing gear, and strict limits on how many of the sharks may be captured incidentally as bycatch.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife will now embark on a one-year in-depth status review of the population. Once the review is complete, the Commission will vote on whether or not to officially list white sharks as threatened or endangered.
Oceana extends a special thank you to the 44,000 Wavemakers who signed the letter of support to better protect our ocean’s iconic apex predator. Your support is making a difference.
Why are California great whites unique?
New scientific studies show that great white sharks off the U.S. West Coast are genetically distinct and isolated from all other great white shark populations worldwide, and that there are estimated to be fewer than 350 adult sharks in this West Coast population. This low population alone puts these great whites at great risk of extinction from natural and human-caused impacts. Beyond that, their continued existence off our coast is further threatened by inherent vulnerability to capture, slow growth rate, and low reproductive output.
The number one threat to this unique population is bycatch in the set and drift gillnet fisheries, which together target swordfish, thresher sharks, California halibut and white seabass. The new candidacy status for these white sharks will allow state managers to begin to control this bycatch.
Precautionary approaches to fishery management for the ocean’s tiny fish are picking up steam across the US West Coast.
California state wildlife advisors recently adopted the state’s first forage fish policy by a unanimous vote and federal fisheries managers recently committed to prohibit new fisheries from developing on unmanaged forage species. Now, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has become part of the broad, diverse coalition in defense of forage fish for a healthy ocean food web.
Late yesterday afternoon, the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Advisory Council adopted a resolution recognizing the important role of forage species, lending support for state and federal fishery managers’ commitments to afford additional protections to the ocean’s small, but critically important marine species. By protecting the forage base, our priceless underwater backyard will continue to be a highly sought destination for eco-tourism, recreational opportunities, and vibrant fisheries, ultimately benefiting our entire coastal community.
In the video above, people are shocked that a fisherman accidentally caught two great whites off of the pier at Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles in the same day (both sharks were released). But, in fact, this isn’t too surprising given that the waters off of Southern California are the main nursery grounds for our west coast population of great white sharks.
Researchers believe young great white shark “pups” spend their first couple years in the warm ocean waters off Southern California and Northern Mexico, where they feed on several species of forage fish like squid, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and hake. Researchers also believe Southern California waters may serve as birthing sites for great white pups as well. After reaching about 6 years of age, great whites get big enough to join the other adult sharks that feed on seals and sea lions, playing an important ecological role as some of the ocean’s few natural predators. Ultimately, this helps keep our ocean food web in balance, ensuring healthy marine wildlife populations and vibrant fishing opportunities.