© Elias Levy
I love spring in Southern California. It means the start of MLB baseball, another fishing season and the return of baby white sharks to our beaches. However, just like pre-season baseball, we’re all a little rusty from the offseason and have to prepare ourselves for another summer of fishing and fun on the water. So what does this have to do with sharks?
Previous research suggests that adult female white sharks move into Southern California or Baja waters to give birth to their young, usually starting around May. These newborn white sharks are about 4.5 to five feet long at birth and seem to move in close to shore, sometimes only a few hundred feet from the shoreline during summer months. It is not uncommon to see these “young-of-the-year” baby white sharks swimming along our ocean piers (Manhattan, Redondo, Venice, Huntington Beach piers), just outside the wave break. From our tagging and tracking studies, we have found that these young sharks typically spend their first summer off our beaches, occasionally moving offshore.
During non-El Niño years, these young sharks would all migrate south to Baja waters in the winter when our water temperatures dip below 60°F. However, over the last two winters, our coastal water conditions have been remarkably mild, and as a result, not many juvenile white sharks have migrated south. It appears El Niño has affected the migration patterns of juvenile white sharks along the Southern California coast, keeping more sharks around during the winter and spring than we normally see.
So with all those juvenile white sharks swimming around and so close to shore, it is no surprise that people are seeing them more often while enjoying their favorite water sports. Stand-up paddleboarders tend to see them the most, since they have such a great vantage point. Over the last few years, there have been more records of anglers catching and landing juvenile white sharks, particularly those fishing off ocean piers and in nearshore waters. However, white sharks are considered a prohibited species in California and federal waters, protected by law. Therefore, it is illegal to intentionally target, or incidentally catch and land white sharks in U.S. waters. Yet every year this happens.
Recently, photos showed up on social media showing the head and tail of a juvenile white shark caught and landed off Newport Beach, California. This sparked a public outrage, and rightfully so. Each summer, juvenile white sharks are caught and killed by anglers who claim they thought they were mako sharks, a closely-related but much different-looking species.
According to Department of Fish & Game Commission code, California ocean anglers are expected to know what they catch and land, and therefore cannot use lack of knowledge as an excuse for breaking the law. While accidental captures and deaths do occur, responsible anglers always try to do their very best to reduce mortality of incidentally-caught prohibited species. They do this because they respect the resource and the importance of these regulations in allowing people to continue fishing. As stewards of the ocean, it is our obligation to keep a watchful eye out for these infractions, educate others about the rules, learn about the marine life in local fishing areas, and release any animals you can’t positively identify.
Now, if you really don’t care about the law and the importance of protecting these important marine animals, eating juvenile white sharks can pose potential health risks to humans, particularly children and pregnant women. Our research has shown that some of these young white sharks can have exceedingly high contaminant levels (mercury, PCBs and DDT). In fact, some of these young white sharks carry some of the highest levels of contaminants measured in any shark to date. While normally top predators accumulate these contaminants over time from the food they eat, we now know that adult female whites acquire high contaminants levels from eating fatty marine mammals and they, in turn, pass these contaminants on to their developing young. This means that a baby white shark can be born with a high contaminant burden. Despite these high levels, we have yet to find any indication of illness for these young sharks, but we just don’t understand how they manage to live and grow with these loads.
Nonetheless, eating juvenile white sharks can pass extremely high levels of contaminants on to us. So the bottom line is: Don’t Eat Them.
Now it is time to prepare for another shark season and getting everyone “Ocean Smart” so they can enjoy another great summer of sharing the waves with our prized marine life. People should know that our research indicates that these young sharks pose little threat to those who are in the water. For the past eight years, the number of juvenile white sharks seen and tracked along our beaches has been increasing, and with hundreds of thousands of people using Southern California waters each year without incident, our studies strongly suggest that if we leave them alone, they’ll leave us alone. Arguing that killing these young naïve white sharks is making the waters safer for kids is just plain wrong. With that in mind, it is important to be cautious and not antagonize or alarm a nearby shark. Just slowly back away.
Remember, the ocean is their home and they are sharing it with us.