Chris Lowe, director of Cal State Long Beach’s Shark Lab, led a virtual town hall this week talk about the increased shark activity off the Southern California coastline, teaming with Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, and Long Beach lifeguards to educate the public on shark behavior.
The shark safety forum followed an incident off Catalina Island last week, when a shark bit child’s hand he was in a canoe, and images surfacing this week of an angler pulling a great white to shore in Dana Point. While the captured shark was taken back out to sea and inadvertently catching a shark isn’t illegal, using big-game gear and targeting the apex predators can be dangerous for both sharks and nearby humans, Lowe said. More regulation is needed to address that issue, Lowe said.
Lowe started the Wednesday, July 7, discussion by talking about the history of sharks off the coastline, where various species can be found.
The ones that draw the most attention — and usually cause people the greatest concern — are the great whites that live off the coast, he said.
The influx in shark activity is a “conservation success story,” he said, after years of human impact on the species. The great white shark population is on the rebound, flowing protections that were put in place in 1995, and decades of marine mammal protection laws enacted the 1970s helped make their food sources abundant.
While the shark population booms, however, so does the number of beachgoers swimming, surfing and paddleboarding off the coast.
“We are constantly in the ocean and sharing the water with the animals who live there,” he said.
Despite more people and more sharks in the water, attacks on humans remain extremely rare, Lowe said.
Lowe also talked about the Southern California shark nursery, where juvenile sharks show up along the shoreline from April to October.
They congregate in “hot spots” like Ventura, Santa Monica, the South Bay, Huntington Beach, San Clemente and San Diego, Low said, each year finding new spots close to the shoreline where they can feed on stingrays and bask in warmer, shallower water.
In 2015 and 2016, Lowe recalled, the sharks chose Long Beach’s Belmont Shore as their hot spot.
“In my entire career,” the Long Beach resident said, “I never thought I’d be able to come out of my front door and tag a white shark,” he said.
The conditions that make good hot spots aren’t entirely known, but researchers, Lowe said, us tagging and various other systems — such as acoustic transmitters and trackers on buoys — to study that.
The Shark Lab also recently deployed a new surface buoy that provides real-time text alerts of tagged sharks near a buoy, which alerts lifeguards to their presence.
“It’s basically a baseball card with all that shark’s stats — where it’s been, how big it is,” Lowe said. “You can see all these different sharks are being detected at different times of the day.”
Drones have also helped researchers watch shark behavior, especially around humans.
Surfers and paddleboarders often don’t see the sharks below them, but drone footage can help show how the predators act when people are near.
“As long as people aren’t chasing them around,” Lowe said, “they don’t care about humans.”
The Catalina Island biting was “very rare,” something that’s almost unheard of, he said.
Lowe also discussed a potentially burgeoning problem for conservationists: the growing trend of big-game fishing at the shoreline, with people deliberately targeting juvenile great white sharks.
“They are using tackle and even chumming off beaches and piers. And it is not illegal to do this — but it is dangerous for other beachgoers,” Lowe said. “It’s likely new regulations will be required to keep people safe, and sharks safe while they are using those nursery habitats.”And catch-and-release fishing also poses problems, Lowe said. Sharks can be agitated and aggressive after being hooked, causing them to go after nearby humans. That’s exactly what happened in Manhattan Beach in 2014, when a swimmer was bitten after an angler from the pier hooked a great white.
“You get a swimmer or surfer out here between the shark that’s fighting for its life, it will lash out at anything nearby,” Lowe said. “These are the things that make it dangerous to other people sharing the water.”
There’s also the danger of using the heavy-duty gear near swimmers and surfers. The lines are thin but strong, made to withstand the pull of sharks, which can weigh hundreds of pounds, as they try to swim away.
“It’s like a cheese grater,” he said. “It can cut their arm, leg or even decapitate someone. That’s the biggest risk; they are fishing for big things at a beach where people are swimming and surfing and that part just isn’t safe.”
He said there’s currently a “loophole” in the law, where people can say they were targeting bat rays and didn’t mean to catch the shark. Other big fish near the shore, like halibut or thresher sharks, don’t require such heavy gear, he said.
“That’s the part that makes it almost impossible to bust these guys,” he said. “Shore fishing is perfectly legal — but it’s the gear.”
Some solutions could be new regulations prohibiting the gear or allowing this kind of fishing only at night, when swimmers and surfers aren’t around.
“There’s going to have to be new regulations to keep everybody safe,” he said.
As for the shark, Lowe said, it’s not clear the harm that comes to sharks from being caught, brought to shore and released.
“Even if it’s unintentional and they are not deliberately catching, that’s not to say they are not killing the sharks,” he said. “There’s not been a scientific study on whether they survive. That poses another risk.”
Lowe and the Shark Lab team try and educate the public with their Shark Shacks up at local beaches and by working with local lifeguard agencies up and down the coast.
He gave advice on what to do to stay safe: Always swim in a group, because if a shark bites you, someone can help. Avoid dead or sick marine life and watch their behavior; if a sea lion jumps on your surfboard, it doesn’t mean it wants to bond with you.
“It could mean it wants to get out of the water because there’s a shark nearby,” he said.
And if you do see a shark, always keep your eyes on it.
“Track it with your eyes, track it with your surfboard,” he said. “Let them know you see it — quite often, they’ll know the jig is up.”
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