State fish and wildlife officials, although deeply skeptical about low numbers of great white sharks off the Pacific Coast, determined that there was sufficient scientific information to warrant a full review on whether the feared, toothy creature should be listed as threatened with extinction.
A team of state officials on Monday recommended that the California Fish and Game Commission accept a petition by nonprofit groups that great whites be protected as threatened or endangered under state's Endangered Species Act.
Those groups, Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and Shark Stewards, have argued that great white populations off the West Coast are "dangerously low." They cite two studies that estimated a total of 338 great white sharks off the coast.
These studies were narrow in scope, state officials said. They did not include great whites in certain areas, such as those that congregate to feed on seals in the waters of Ano Nuevo State Park in San Mateo County. Even if the numbers are this low, the 43-page analysis said, these studies have not proved the population is declining.
Instead, some catch trends cited by scientists suggest that the great white population may be increasing, state officials wrote. They speculated an upswing could be happening because of the rebound of elephant seals -- which great whites love to eat -- and fishing regulations that pushed commercial gill nets farther offshore, and thus reducing the number of great whites inadvertently caught in them. Another possible indication of a growing population could be the surge in sea otters found dead from shark bites, officials noted.
Although state officials said more study was needed, they agreed that the current estimate of 338 sharks -- scattered through a range that stretches from Mexico to the Bering Sea and out to Hawaii -- constitute the best available science.
In evaluating the petition, fish and wildlife officials found it was generally accurate and recommended the Fish and Game Commission accept it. That, in turn, would start a yearlong clock for commissioners and state officials to do a deeper investigation and debate whether the sharks warrant extra protections.
Great whites are already protected under state fishing regulations, which prohibit them from being caught without a special permit. The federal government also prohibits the retention of great whites caught in U.S. waters, outside the 3-mile state limit.