Man Bites Shark? Activists Seek Great White Protections

Published October 3, 2012

Forget about Jaws—great white sharks have more to fear from people than the other way around, some environmental activist groups claim. They’re filing petitions to protect the ocean carnivores under California and federal endangered species laws. 

Three environmental organizations—Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Shark Stewards—have petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to protect great white sharks under the state’s Endangered Species Act. The groups filed a similar petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service for federal protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The groups say fewer than 350 sharks exist off the coast of California and their presence is necessary to keep the ecosystem in balance.

Role in Ecosystem 

“Sharks play a really important role in the ecosystem,” said Ashley Blacow, Pacific policy and communications coordinator for Oceana. “They play a top-down role where they keep other populations in check, like sea lions. If you remove any one of them from the system, it has an effect on the whole.”

The petition claims fishermen are killing too many great white sharks, especially through the use of fishing nets. Blacow said at least 10 young sharks have been trapped in nets off the California coast in the past year. 

Groups Blame Power Plants

Blacow says power plant emissions, pesticides, and global warming also threaten great white sharks.

“Juvenile Northeastern Pacific white sharks are among the most heavily contaminated with mercury, PCBs, and DDT of all shark species tested to date.… Moreover, the cumulative impacts of multiple stressors, including contamination, bycatch, coastal development, pollution, ocean acidification, and climate change put Northeastern Pacific white sharks at great risk of extinction.”

The petition seeks “hard limits on the incidental capture of white sharks” as well as listing of the shark as endangered or threatened. The petition also advocates new restrictions on fishing gear, a limitation on fishery hours of operation, and new emissions restrictions that would reduce the amount of toxins in the oceans. 

Group Seeks More Taxpayer Funding

David McGuire, a marine biologist and the president of Shark Stewards, admitted the approach was more precautionary than scientifically supported.

“We don’t know how many young we’re losing to fisheries in South California and Mexico. We don’t know if the population is at the stable level. But this makes you look at the entire ecosystem and its impacts,” he said. “We agree there’s a lot lacking in the information.”

Protection under the Endangered Species Act will allow for more funding for more research of the sharks, McGuire said.

Cheryl Chumley is a digital editor with The Washington Times’ newest endeavor,