White sharks rebound in California

The long arc of environmental regulation is rebuilding a damaged ecosystem.

 

Most of the millions of beachgoers who flock to southern California’s coast never notice the baby sharks swimming laps just offshore, but that’s starting to change. The sharks aren’t on the prowl for sunblock-glazed snacks: the Southern California Bight – the coastal waters from Santa Barbara to the U.S.-Mexico border – is a white shark nursery. It’s where the young predators hide out, stay warm, and learn to hunt, before joining adults in deeper seas. Though their species has long been declining, baby white sharks are making a surprising comeback in the Bight.

Their return tells a bigger environmental success story: federal and state regulations stretching back 40 years have curtailed pollution and repaired the marine food web that includes white sharks (formerly called great white sharks). “You can’t have an ecosystem that’s badly damaged and have predators,” Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University-Long Beach, says.

Chris Lowe (in red) returns a juvenile great white shark to the sea, off Santa Monica beach. Baby white sharks are showing up in larger numbers, indicating a healthier marine ecosystem.
Steve McNicholas

The Bight’s baby white sharks declined for a number of reasons, Lowe says: poor water quality, their decimation as gillnetting bycatch, and the near-extirpation of the prey that adult sharks rely on. Likewise, no single environmental law saved them. Instead, a suite of regulations enacted from the 1970s to the mid 1990s helped restore southern California’s coastal ecosystem enough for its white shark nursery to eventually start recovering. (See timeline).

In 1994, California passed a white shark fishing ban and a gillnet fishing ban, both of which protected baby white sharks. Since then, researchers have documented baby shark populations growing in the Bight. The sharks shape the Bight’s ecosystem, in turn. California’s seals and sea lions have rebounded so well under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, predators are needed to cull their populations and keep them healthy, Lowe says. Meanwhile, development projects such as marinas and residential buildings constructed in California’s estuaries have pushed stingrays out of their traditional habitats and into coastal waters, where the rays provide easy food for baby white sharks. In future, the sharks’ appetites might even make people safer: Stingrays injure beachgoers on California’s coast far more frequently than white sharks do, Lowe says, though he acknowledges that’s a hard argument to sell to a shark-phobic public.

“You hear about all the bad things we’re doing to the planet, to the ocean: the pollution, overfishing, global climate change,” Lowe says. Marine life faces continued threats, but the recovery of the shark population is a sign that humans are doing something right. “Maybe at a regional scale, but at least it’s a start.”

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking two full time community organizers to join our team. Positions can be based in Garfield County, Montrose...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Join our team as the Association's Executive Director. Working closely with the Board of Directors, take ANWS to the next level of professionalism by managing...
  • FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Development Director who will have the overall responsibilities of leading our fundraising programs and reports directly to our...
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...