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Manhattan Beach pierLike a scene from the movie Jaws…  it was 4th of July weekend, perfect weather, a gorgeous southern California beach jam packed with surfers and swimmers, fishers enjoying a lovely day of fishing off the Manhattan Beach pier, and of course lots of juvenile white sharks cruising around. When you put all those water-users (swimmers, fishers, and sharks) in the same place at the same time, something is bound to happen, and it did.

An ocean swimmer was bitten by a hooked juvenile white shark that was being angled by fisherman on the pier.  The shark was eventually released, and the swimmer rescued by lifeguards and treated for his injuries at a local hospital.  Not surprisingly, this quickly became national news and raised heated arguments about water-user conflicts.  The following day the City of Manhattan Beach closed the pier to fishing for 60 days while they investigated the situation.  Despite the fact that there were dozens of witnesses, details about how the shark was caught and whether it was targeted are sketchy.  Many claimed the fisherman was using chum, but the fisherman who caught the shark, maintains that he was fishing for bat rays.  Suspiciously, a large set of terminal tackle washed up on the beach the next day including a float, 20’ of stainless steel ¼” wire leader attached to a large 12/0 hook.

While none of these activities are illegal in California (e.g., chumming, fishing for sharks), and I’m not opposed to people fishing for sharks as long as it can be done sustainably, common sense would suggest that these are not good ideas off a coastal pier surrounded by hundreds of swimmers and surfers.  Frankly, it wouldn’t have mattered if the fisherman had accidentally hooked a sea lion or dolphin, it is unlikely they would have been able to stop the animal from spooling the reel and potentially slicing up swimmers with the razor sharp spectra line in the process.  Regardless, of how you feel about fishing or a swimmer/surfer’s right to safe ocean access, this incident has brought to light the real issue… the ocean is changing and we are going to have to learn to share it with the actual residents by changing our behavior.

Probably two generations of Americans have grown up using coastal waters that have been historically devoid of large marine animals such as seals, dolphins, and sharks.  Many of these large marine predator populations had been reduced over the last 50-100 years due to direct overfishing, bycatch mortality, displacement due to prey loss, and pollution.  However, the ocean is changing and we have actually done a lot over the last 20 years to restore ecosystem function by better managing fisheries, protecting sensitive species, improving water quality and better managing coastal development.  As a result, the big marine predators are coming back, and some in force.  At the same time, Americans are using the ocean for new recreational purposes more than ever before, and have become accustomed to unfettered use of the ocean for swimming, surfing, diving, and playing without having to learn how to deal with some of these large marine predators.

We’ve spent a lot of time, money and political effort to bring many of these marine predator populations back, and culling these animals because they may pose a “potential threat” would be a ridiculous notion.  So, we’d better start learning how we can share the ocean with them – after all, it’s their home and we’re just guests.

So, what should be done to resolve user conflicts like this in southern California?  Well, one option proposed was to permanently ban fishing off the Manhattan Beach pier.  To me, this seemed a little unfair and in the State of California, is probably unconstitutional.  California is one of the few states in the country that actually mentions protection of fishing rights in the State Constitution.  While a vast majority of fishers that fish off the pier are only targeting perches, flatfishes, and croakers, only a very small group of individuals fish with the purpose to target large sharks.

In addition, the Manhattan Beach pier is considered one of the oldest fishing piers in California and has long supported recreational and subsistence fishing.  In fact, these ocean fishing piers are the only place where you can fish for free in California (without an ocean fishing license) and there are many economically strapped families that subsidize their diets by fishing off ocean piers.  It’s amazing how many California kids learned about fishing and the ocean from fishing off these piers with their families – many of whom have also developed strong ties to the ocean and positive conservation ethos.  The other option considered is to limit what kind of fishing can be done from the pier by restricting gear type and tackle, and prohibit chumming and discarding of cleaned fish carcasses.  After careful consideration this option was adopted by the Manhattan Beach City Council and seems like a fair compromise.

Of course, the toughest part about implementing any “regulation” is that it requires lots of education and enforcement.  Fortunately, conservation groups like Heal the Bay have already stepped up to provide a fisher education program for the pier, but enforcement will probably have to come largely from “peer” fisher pressure (pardon the pun).  Nevertheless, surfers and swimmers do occasionally get hooked by fishers from the pier, so it’s probably wise to expand the prohibited area surrounding the pier.  Obviously, this wouldn’t sit well with surfers who enjoy the break generated by sand collected around the pier, but it would further reduce the likelihood of another surfer or swimming being bitten or cut by a struggling fish, marine mammal or shark accidentally caught from the pier.

But, what about the sharks?  Well, they’re the toughest water user group to negotiate with – for obvious reasons, but mainly because we don’t really know how much time they spend around the pier or whether fishing activities actually attracts them to the pier more than other areas.  While these are certainly answerable questions and ones worth understanding, the compromises made by other water user groups would certainly result in less impacts to the juvenile white sharks that appear to be using these coastal beaches to make their living.

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