Shark monitoring system pings California lifeguards, but lack of funds could end it

A paddle boarder rows in the ocean next to a shark
A program that tracks sharks along California’s beaches and researches their behavior is at risk of losing funding from the state.
(Carlos Gauna / Cal State Long Beach)

Here’s something Californians may not know: When some great white sharks get within about 100 yards of certain state beaches, lifeguards get a text alert.

A Cal State Long Beach program developed this unique system about six years ago, and hundreds of juvenile white sharks have since been tagged for monitoring.

But the program is at risk of shutting down after running out of state funding.

The Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach in 2018 received $3.75 million in state funding to set up the program, which tracks juvenile white sharks along California’s coastline. Researchers hoped the monitoring would increase safety at beaches and help the public better understand the sea creatures.


This Malibu photographer captures images of great white sharks along the Southern California coast, many just feet from unknowing swimmers and surfers.

May 4, 2021

The money has enabled researchers to tag 300 juvenile sharks — about 235 are being actively monitored — and send data on their whereabouts and habits to lifeguards at beaches stretching from Morro Bay to the Mexican border, said Chris Lowe, a professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab.

The team initially tracked the sharks using 120 underwater acoustic receivers placed about 100 yards off the beach. Divers would collect data from the receivers about once a month and send it to lifeguards. By that point, the information was usually outdated.

Over the years, the program added tracking buoys, “which give lifeguards real-time data,” Lowe said. “So now, when a tagged shark swims by one of these buoys ... it sends the lifeguards a text alert. And then they can click on that text alert, it takes them to a website, and then they can learn all about that shark: How big is it, where has it been, what beaches has it visited, how long has it been at their beach?”

The technology serves less as an “early warning system” than as a scientific tool to help lifeguards “better manage beaches,” Lowe added.

The funding was intended to last the research team five years, Lowe said, but it was able to extend the money an extra year. The team of 15, including paid students, operates on a budget of roughly $1 million per year.

Lowe said he had talked with state legislators about earmarking money to continue the program over the next several years. But the state’s dire budget outlook has halted extra spending amid a projected deficit of at least $38 billion.


The office of state Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) said she was aware that Cal State campuses are dealing with funding challenges and that the Shark Lab’s alert system “seems to also face financial shortfalls.”

Gonzalez’s office did not say whether the senator would push for funding for the lab in the state budget.

Assemblymember Josh Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) is also aware of the issue. His chief of staff, Guy Strahl, said the office put in a budget request for the program last year but was not successful in getting more money. Strahl said Lowe has not asked for another round of funds this year, and the program isn’t included in this year’s funding requests for the Cal State system or Long Beach campus.

Without an infusion of $7 million to continue the program, scientific progress could stall out, Lowe fears. He said that for the program to survive, the lab would have to find private or foundation funds until the state budget recovers.

The tracking has bolstered drone research that shows how often surfers and other beachgoers are sharing the water with sharks — most often without incident. That has helped to chip away at misconceptions that sharks are always dangerous and that beaches should be closed when they are nearby.

Lowe said the data collection process has saved coastal communities millions of dollars each year because beaches are staying open more often, even when lifeguards get alerts of sharks in the water.


Additionally, researchers are beginning to understand why sharks flock toward certain beaches, and what their food supply says about the marine ecosystem at large.

“That information is valuable not just to lifeguards but to the public,” Lowe said. “Because they begin to better understand what the sharks are doing out there and why they don’t pose as big a risk as we once thought.”

Meanwhile, the research effort has become a major attraction and recruiting plug for prospective students looking to study marine biology at Cal State Long Beach.

New funding would help the team tag more sharks and upgrade transmitters, Lowe said, while continuing to educate the public on marine conservation and shark habits.

“When shark incidents do occur, and they will continue to occur — shark bites will still happen — people will have an understanding of the rarity of those circumstances,” he said. “If we can’t run these kinds of programs in California, I don’t know where we could.”