They may not know it yet, but a few hundred great white sharks off the California coast can breathe a little easier today. After months of pressure from conservation groups, the state's Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to consider listing the unique shark population as an endangered species.
The vote kicks off a one-year scientific review to determine if the sharks qualify for state protection, and also immediately grants them temporary protection pending a final decision in spring 2014. While California has outlawed commercial fishing of great white sharks since 1994, they still often wind up as "bycatch" in gillnets, which target halibut, sea bass and swordfish off the coasts of California and western Mexico.
According to an array of scientists and conservationists who've pushed for greater protection, this population of sharks — which is considered genetically distinct from other great whites around the world — may now number around 300 adults, with fewer than 100 mature females. Such a small gene pool would put them in danger of losing their genetic diversity, experts say, and eventually of dying off.
"California's most feared and revered ocean predators are one step closer to protections they desperately need," said Geoff Shester, California program director for the environmental group Oceana, in a statement released after Wednesday's vote. "Now we can start talking about how to end the continued killing of white shark pups as bycatch in our damaging offshore gillnet fisheries."
California law currently places no limit on great white bycatch, and while fishermen are supposed to throw back any sharks ensnared in their gillnets, they face little threat of penalty if they don't comply. The Fish and Game Commission's vote aims to close that loophole, at least partially, by requiring gillnet fishermen to apply for "incidental take permits" within 90 days or risk losing their fishing rights.
Oceana was one of three organizations that filed a petition for the state to protect its great whites, joined by the Center for Biological Diversity and Shark Stewards. The groups also filed a separate petition last year asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect California's sharks under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the federal agency is expected to conclude its own review this summer.
Although several thousand great whites exist worldwide, the species as a whole is also threatened by intentional fishing, driven largely by the demand for shark fin soup in Asia. So-called "shark finning" is already illegal in the U.S., and California also recently banned the sale of shark fin soup. Other countries have taken similar measures; Australia and South Africa have both classified their great whites as endangered, and the species is listed as vulnerable globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
"Sharks are such amazing animals, and I've been lucky enough to see one when I wasn't in the water," the CBD's Emily Jeffers said Wednesday. "[But] despite their power, they're actually incredibly vulnerable to the terrible way we treat our ocean."
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