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For our heroic surfers, pier fishing that lures sharks needs to go

ColumnSportsLifestyle and LeisureSwimmingFishing
Manhattan Beach shark-bite incident throws light on surfers' role in beach safety
After Manhattan Beach shark-bite incident, Chris Erskine visits the scene, and the issue

I'm paddling through the playground of the great white shark about 100 yards offshore, just south of Manhattan Beach Pier, straight out from that first lifeguard stand, roughly the site of Saturday's attack.

My Walden Pond.

Well, maybe that's a little generous. Walden Pond never had riptides and 6-foot waves, or black-eyed monsters swirling beneath.

It's 9:30 a.m., about the same time as Saturday's shark attack. What's different? Not much. As on any July morning, surf thrashes the pier. Though sizable, the waves are breaking fanny over face, making them a tricky ride. At one point, my longboard lurches for the sky and shears the tiny cord that links us together. The board washes ashore. Then so do I.

There are ways to laugh off the threat of the great whites around here. Do they prefer ranch dressing or sunscreen? Do they want fries with me?

You can joke, because the threat of a great white attack is almost laughably minuscule. In the past 64 years, there have been only 13 shark-attack fatalities in California. You have a better chance of winning the lottery.

Yet, the water is eerily warm this summer and great white sightings are on the rise. Surfers see the young ones out here all the time, usually only about four or five feet long, working their lower jaws, learning how to feed.

I read once that the sense of serenity we get from looking out at the ocean comes from an ancient appreciation for an open horizon. Way back when, if the horizon was clear, it meant your enemy was nowhere near and you could relax a while.

That doesn't address the threats we can't see. Sharks and monofilament.

With home-field advantage lurk the great whites, the grizzlies of the sea. As often in nature, they will leave you alone as long as you mind your business. In Saturday's attack, the 7-footer had been hooked from the pier, then in distress lunged for a passing swimmer. Blood everywhere. Game over — almost.

Distance swimmer Steven Robles, 50, is expected to fully recover, but it's not the end of this story. Some are calling for pier fishing to be banned permanently. Though fishing for great whites is already prohibited, some anglers still do it.

"You know, when they're fishing with metal line and chum, it doesn't seem like they're really going after some little calico bass," said Alex Shea, of Nikau Kai surf rentals, near the base of the pier.

Shea was setting up for a busy Saturday when the shark took a chomp at Robles. Oddly, the lifeguard stand closest to the pier was not yet open during the holiday weekend, but witnesses said guards were on the scene almost immediately.

Jeff Garnevicus, who has surfed this stretch for decades, was one of the first to reach the injured swimmer.

"I'd just paddled out when I heard a bunch of screaming," Garnevicus said.

"Then a man was yelling 'Shark! Shark!'" he said. "So I do what's instinctive — I go right for him."

As less instinctive folks fled the water, Garnevicus went right at the victim, helping other distance swimmers drag Robles to shore. By then, lifeguards and emergency personnel were responding.

The bizarre incident throws a light on the role surfers play in beach safety. Though often as territorial as the sharks, surfers are frequently the first to respond to an emergency. No one, not even lifeguards, knows the ocean's heaves and undertows better.

"We have eyes in the back of our heads," said Garnevicus's brother, Tommy. "Who was on the call first? The surfers. But they treat us like criminals."

"No one else was going to help this guy," Jeff said.

Surfers constantly feel squeezed over areas they can use. Like lifeguards — or surfers — such issues will never go away.

Something that might go away is pier fishing in Manhattan Beach, which I give a 50-50 chance of surviving, after repeated reports of fishermen throwing bloody buckets of chum off the pier to attract sharks.

What came first, the chum or the sharks?

My heart is with the fishermen, mostly working-class types who bring along the family for an affordable evening of salt air and sport fishing. Part of the forgotten class, they're unlikely to find someone to stand up for them.

But my head is with the swimmers and surfers, the most vulnerable of the four parties at play here. Surfers, swimmers, anglers, sharks.

PETA will make a stand for the sharks. I'll make a stand for the surfers, that extra safety net on any busy SoCal beach.

"You know, I've been hooked a couple of times," said veteran surfer Jesse Frias, as he looks out toward the ocean.

Not me. Not yet. But, like the sharks, I'm still out there circling.

Follow Chris Erskine on Twitter @erskinetimes

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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