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.
While state legislation passed in 1994 made it illegal to recreationally or commercially target great white sharks, it explicitly allowed continued incidental capture in fishing gear. Today’s official legal protections will close this critical gap in current protection, making it illegal to incidentally catch a great white. The Department of Fish and Wildlife will now only consider exceptions on a case-by-case basis. While we support continued research and educational opportunities, we expect that any exceptions granted to commercial fishing operations will be accompanied by additional protection.
This new protection will remain in place while the Department of Fish and Wildlife conducts a year-long status review of the great white shark population. A final decision on a full endangered species listing is expected in February 2014, in which the five-member Fish and Game Commission will vote on the future of great white shark protection, namely whether to designate them as endangered, threatened, or take no action.
Thank you to the 44,000 Wavemakers who signed the letter of support to better protect our ocean’s iconic apex predator. Your voice was heard and your support is making a difference.
About Great White Sharks
Great white sharks are important to maintaining healthy and diverse oceans. They play a critical top-down role in structuring the marine ecosystem by keeping prey populations in check, such as sea lions and elephant seals, benefiting our fisheries and abundant wildlife. 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. Adult great white sharks grow to a maximum size of approximately 20 feet in length, weigh up to 6,600 pounds, and are estimated to live for 30 years. Female great white sharks do not mature until they are 12-14 years of age whereas males mature between 9-10 years of age.