GREAT WHITE SHARKS apparently are making a comeback along the Southern California coast. That’s excellent news for the protected great whites, but unsettling for the millions of Californians who work and play in the Pacific.
As an environmentalist and a surfer who believes in protecting wild land and wild animals, including big predators that can harm humans, I’m troubled by our approach to great whites. An extreme and, I believe, confused notion of wilderness is in play here. In Southern California, where our neighborhoods push deeper and deeper into the wild geography of mountains and canyons, we are accustomed to coyotes, bears and mountain lions coming into our streets and yards. But we nevertheless police this boundary. We don’t accept that mountain lions or bears should come onto our lawn and attack one of us. Animals that do so are moved, sometimes killed, without endangering the survival of the species or the stability of the ecosystem.
That doesn’t happen with great whites. In 2003, an angler on the Hermosa Pier caught a juvenile white shark. Thinking it was a mako shark (of which you are allowed to catch two per day), he kept it. But he was fined and ordered to do community service. A similar case this summer against a charter boat is pending. A great white that killed a woman swimming off Avila Beach two years ago was seen several times in the following weeks hunting seals just off the beach while the little resort town watched the summer season it depends on evaporate, as visitors stayed away in droves. As a protected species, the shark could not be harmed.
Until recently, great whites found south of Point Conception were considered strays from their primary hunting grounds, the seal colonies of Northern California. An uptick in Southern California sightings began in 2003, when surfers at San Onofre, on the border of Orange and San Diego counties, saw three juvenile whites prowling the shoreline. The fish, each 8 feet long, hung around all summer, circling and occasionally bumping surfers, but biting no one. Locals named then Sparky, Fluffy and Archie.
This year, sharks 6 feet long are turning up at beaches from Solana in the south up through Laguna, Huntington, El Segundo, Zuma, and on to Emma Wood in the north. Surfers encountered 10- to 13-foot white sharks at Del Mar, Point Mugu and Ventura. A shark in that range bumped a surfer at Topanga, and three bodyboarders experienced what seemed to them a failed attack at Point Mugu. A surfer reported seeing a seal flung through the air at Encinitas. On June 18, at Leo Carillo Beach in Malibu, lifeguards saw a 13-footer and cleared the water. At Zuma Beach in March, a lifeguard and several spectators reported a 15-foot shark following an adult gray whale and her calf. All of these instances were in shallow water, close to shore in the surf zone.
The swelling number of sightings could be sampling error: More people go into the water every year, stoked by surf-themed movies like “Blue Crush” and “Step into Liquid.” Scientists urge caution in jumping to conclusions, saying the reported surge in sightings doesn’t prove conclusively that white shark numbers are rising. Yet they acknowledge that mysteries remain about these animals, including where they breed, give birth and feed when the seals leave their colonies for the sea. Scientists believe that female white sharks come to Southern California in early spring to give birth to litters of “pups.” The 4-foot-long babies are left to fend for themselves, eating halibut, cabezon and other fish, while the adult females go out to the islands or elsewhere to find larger prey. It’s not uncommon for area fishermen to catch juveniles, usually inadvertently.
Young sharks probably pose little danger to people. Their teeth are needle-like and close-set, adapted to hold fish, not tear into large animals. But as the sharks grow past 10 feet, they develop bigger, wider teeth, set farther apart, to allow them to eat seals, small whales and other mammals. These developing sharks are the most agile and aggressive -- and may be more dangerous than larger adults. Worldwide, just 27% of white sharks that bite people are longer than 15 feet, while 50% are between 10 and 15 feet. It is extremely cold comfort to know that if bitten by a smaller shark, your likelihood of dying is 22%, versus 45% if your assailant is a large adult.
No one knows whether the young great whites now in Southern California will stay once mature. Fully grown great whites are incredibly rare. Perhaps no more than 100 live off California, and they tend to stick around a few elephant seal colonies at the Farallons, Ano Nuevo, San Simeon, San Miguel Island and Guadalupe Island off Mexico. In those locations, encounters with humans are uncommon. As Professor Peter Klimly, a shark expert at UC Davis, says, “If all the bad guys are all in one place, far away from people, you don’t have a problem.”
But Klimly acknowledges that there is “an ambience” of sharks continually moving along the coast between seal colonies, and those sharks can come into contact with people. And although white shark advocates insist that the animals don’t eat people, they certainly do bite and kill them. California has recorded 11 fatal attacks and 83 nonfatal attacks since the early 1950s. In Southern California, the fatal attacks have been off La Jolla in 1959, off Malibu in 1989 and the woman swimming near the Avila Beach pier in San Luis Obispo County in 2003.
Clearly, sharks and people need to be carefully managed. But only the sharks have protection, under a California law that took effect in 1994. That law made sense at the time. The 1975 movie “Jaws” and a dozen years of sequels sent more sportfishing boats after big sharks for thrills. Today, as seals, the sharks’ primary food, thrive along the coast as a protected species, no one knows if the great whites are indeed endangered. The 1994 law called for a study to determine the great white population along the coast, but no money was allocated to pay for it.
In light of the research vacuum, scientists have no idea what the historical numbers are, or whether the sharks have been declining or thriving. Worldwide, they show no signs of disappearing. They inhabit nearly all parts of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, plus the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas.
Among defenders of the sharks, it’s fashionable to say that we “enter the shark’s house” when we go in the ocean and must accept the risk of attack. There’s an undercurrent of guilt in this bravado, as though by “entering the food chain” we can somehow expiate our forefathers’ sins in exterminating other species, such as the grizzly bear featured on the California flag but hunted out of the state a century ago. The woman who loved to swim at Avila Beach is routinely talked of as though she deserved her death. She looked like a seal in her fins and wetsuit and was swimming near seals, thus she brought it on herself; the shark is blameless. Her death was an unfortunate cost, we are told, of keeping an important endangered species alive.
This may be true, but it seems gruesome and an easy moralization for people who do not go into the ocean.
The urban beaches of Southern California are not the same as an oceanic “wilderness” like the Farallon Islands. They are our backyard. We should not have to forfeit our right to security the minute we step off dry sand -- especially because the scientific case for the great white shark’s immediate endangerment becomes less convincing with each new sighting.
Knowing more about the shark is vital. We should demand funding for the science required to make the right decisions. And we should end the blanket protection offered these animals when they venture near our beaches. Sharks that menace or attack people should be managed in the same way as problem bears and mountain lions: captured and relocated if possible, or killed if necessary.