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Sharks On Verge of Endangered Status

Protecting great white sharks is long overdue, one Northern California researcher says.

One of the ocean's most-feared predators may need some protection of its own.

Great white sharks, who rule the waters off the coast of Marin in the northern portion of the so-called Red Triangle, could be added the California Endangered Species Act following a year-long review to make sure the carnivorous creature is at-risk, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month.

Sean Van Sommeran, executive director of the conservation and research group Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, says protecting great white sharks is something he's been fighting for since the early 1990s. 

"I think they could have clearly been declared a no-take species worldwide much earlier," Van Sommeran said. "The data's been there for years."

California's Fish and Game Commission voted 4-0 in early February to bestow "endangered" status to white sharks in 2014. In the interim, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife will collect data on white shark populations, according to the Mercury News.

Studies show there are only a few hundred adult Northeastern Pacific white sharks in the region, which ranges from Mexico to the Bering Sea, and offshore to Hawaii.

Great white sharks most often make headlines for occasional sightings near the beach and rare attacks on surfers. Adults average 13 to 17 feet long and weigh 1,500 to 2,000 pounds. The largest of the sharks are upwards of 18 feet long and weigh nearly 5,000 pounds.

"I’ve been out in the water and I feel fairly safe in here, but they do cruise around here," Ed Burrell, the owner of the Capitola Boat & Bait, told Patch last summer following a spate of shark sightings in the Monterey Bay and one attack on a kayak.

The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation operates a white shark monitoring program on Año Nuevo Island in San Mateo County. There, researchers have tracked sharks as far as Hawaii and Baja, Mexico.

Van Sommeran, who grew up in Santa Cruz and saw his first shark in the wild at age 12, explained the complicated journey white sharks have made to the state's Endangered Species List.

"The effort to get white sharks and basking sharks [protected] actually began in 1990 and '91," Van Sommeran said.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill banning the hunting of sharks up to three miles off the California coast in 1994. Further protections were added in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 1997, according to Van Sommeran.

He told Patch the Endangered Species Act development is "good news that white sharks will be further protected."

But there has been no wider protection, which Van Sommeran said is integral to helping the species flourish. How those safeguards are implemented will be critical to the success of the effort, he said.  

Targeting directed poaching, such as fishermen who net or harpoon sharks but plead that they killed the finned fish accidentally, is a good first step, according to Van Sommeran. Similarly, reducing sport poaching—glamorized by TV shows where sharks pursued, captured and tagged—off the Mexican coast needs to be a focus.

Outside of poaching, preserving great white sharks' habitat is the other crucial piece to protecting the species, Van Sommeran said. While steps have been taken to do that in Northern California, the sharks migrate through a larges swath of the Pacific Ocean. Keeping tourists boats, which may feed marine life or desensitize sharks to human contact, out of some of those areas could benefit shark populations.

Van Sommeran acknowledged that these protections, to be effective, need to stretch beyond the California coast.

Three environmental groups have also petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to include great whites on the federal endangered species list, according to the Mercury News. That will be decided next summer.

Do you think great white sharks need more protections? Why or why not? Tell us in the comment section below.

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