California surfers and swimmers alike share a long abiding fear of the terror of the seas—the deadly great white shark. But it turns out that the sharks actually have more to fear from humans. The population of adult great white sharks off the coast of California and Baja California has dwindled rapidly, totaling fewer than 350 sharks. This alarming decline in numbers has prompted three environmental groups—Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and SharkStewards–to file a petition to protect the U. S. West Coast population of adult great white sharks under California’s Endangered Species Act.
Studies have shown that during the past two years there are far fewer great white sharks off the U.S. West Coast than expected by researchers, putting the species at serious risk for extinction. These sharks are genetically different from other great whites found anywhere else in the world. Great white sharks are a key component of California’s ocean ecosystem, keeping prey populations such as California sea lions and northern elephant seals in check.
Quoted in a news release from Oceana, its California Program Director, Dr. Geoff Shester, said, “The new science set off alarm bells for all of us, as no one expected the population to be so dangerously low. Great white sharks are powerful allies, keeping our oceans healthy, and they need us to protect them far more than we should fear them.”
While it is illegal to capture great white sharks for sale off the California and Mexicocoasts, more than 80 percent of young great white sharks are killed by gillnets that target California halibut, thresher sharks, white sea bass, yellowtail and swordfish. Researchers also found that young great white sharks caught off the California coast have the second-highest mercury level of any sharks on record worldwide. They also had high levels of the contaminants PCB and DDT in their liver tissue, higher than any other shark species reported to date anywhere. An Endangered Species Act listing will help protect the species as well as help to garner funding for research to learn more about the status and threats to the fish.