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
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details:
  • HAND CRAFTED LOG HOME IN TETON VALLEY
    on ten acres. Full view of the Grand Teton. 35 miles to Yellowstone and 20 minutes to Grand Targhee Ski Area.
  • ACREAGE WITH HOME, SHOP, BARN FOR SALE!
    Must see for sng/extd fam or corp retreat in pines! $1,030,000
  • WESTERN REGIONAL MANAGER
    The American Forest Foundation seeks a smart and highly motivated candidate to join our Western conservation team. The Regional Manager supports the Regional Director to...