More Food Means More Sharks

Biologists think healthier fisheries and protection legislation have contributed to increased sightings.

In the last year, there have been more white shark sightings off San Clemente. Why more sharks? Because, scientists figure, that's where the food is.

They give the credit to healthier fisheries promoted by the newly constructed Wheeler North Reef, certain wildlife  protection laws and the reduction in use of drift gill nets for fishing. Those, they say, have contributed to bigger fish populations.

Because of the diminishing kelp forest, Southern California Edison constructed in fall 2008 a replacement kelp bed known as the Wheeler North Reef to offset any negative effects the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station's cooling system had on wildlife. 

Scientists also figure that one reason there have been more sightings is that more people visiting the south San Clemente breaks means more people spotting sharks that are always there. And what about of surfers' theory that the smell of a beached whale buried a few years ago is what has been attracting the sharks? Scientists think the buried whale wouldn't have much of an effect.

"The overall numbers [of fish] are high," said UC Santa Barbara ecologist Steve Schroeter, who is among the team monitoring the reef for the California Coastal Commission. "It's performing comparably to the natural kelp beds. There's been a tremendous increase in habitat, so likely that's increased opportunity for sport and commercial fishing."

The new habitat for more than 50 types of fish pleases local fishermen.

"The artificial reef that they put out there has really helped out the fishing," said Glenn Lemann, 59, a local fisherman for 25 years. "I've caught keeper white sea bass, keeper halibut right along the coast."

Where there are prey fish, there are sharks.

Although there is much speculation about white shark's migratory patterns as well as breeding habits,  marine biologists say 90 percent of the white sharks spotted in Southern California are probably juveniles, measuring between 5.5 feet and 9 feet, according to Cal State Long Beach marine biologist Chris Lowe, who specializes in shark behavior. 

"Juvenile white sharks are feeding on slow-moving things that are easy to catch off  of the bottom," said  Lowe. "They eat a lot of skates, rays and small halibut."

A little history:

As a result of a serious decline in Southern California's marine mammal and bird population, in 1994 the National Marine Fishery Service implemented restrictions and regulations on near-shore drift gill net fishing via the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Drift gill nets rely on the tendency of fish the swim through netting, but get caught because their gills tangle in the line—a very effective way of collecting fish from an area.

"The problem was the fishery was largely unregulated," said Lowe. "The fishery service now only allows them to fish at certain times in the year, they changed the mesh size of the net and forced fisherman to send nets deeper below the surface."

Since this amendment, near-shore gill netting is now only allowed three miles off shore.

Furthermore, in 1997, the state of California passed the Marine Life Management Act, which offers the endangered great white shark protection in state waters. Fishing enthusiasts can no longer "land" a great white shark, no matter its size.

"What we've seen since 2004 is a steady increase in reports of baby white sharks being caught in a fishery that has very few fisheries left," said Lowe. "So this is why we think the white shark population is growing off of Southern California."

As for the everyday San Clemente beachgoer and ocean enthusiast, there seems to be little worry.

"I think it's finally restoring our ecosystem and bringing it back into balance," said local surfer Pamela Osuna, 34.  "I know it can be a bit frightening, especially as a surfer. However, people have lived in harmony with sharks for many years. It's very rare that you have any kind of attack, so I'm not too concerned about it."

In August, professional athlete Chuck Patterson took his 12-foot 6-inch stand-up paddleboard, jury-rigged a Go-Pro water camera onto his paddle and paddled out to San Onofre to catch a 10-foot white shark on video. "They're pretty much just as curious as you are," said Patterson. "They're not really a threat; they're just kind of cruising around, otherwise I think people would have been attacked a long time ago."

For the last two years, Patterson has been stand-up paddleboarding around San Onofre and continues to do so in hopes of another sighting.

Brian Alper December 31, 2010 at 11:20 PM
Great article, Jackie. As you know, the crew saw one breach at Uppers about two months ago (chasing a surface bird), Rich Thornton (and a slew of other people) saw one surface and actually "hang out" just off of Mariposa last year, and the Coast Guard spotted a healthy adult just outside of the Dana Point harbor around the same time... Additionally, many of the guys (like Chuck P) who stand up at Dog Patch (San O) see them regularly, and there is even one of the gang who won't stand up there anymore because of the frequency of sightings... Having surfed 33 years, I am fortunate that I have never seen one "up close", and honestly, I hope it stays that way. However, they are magnificent creatures, being THE creature able to claim the title "apex predator" in the marine ecosystem.
Brian January 12, 2011 at 03:56 AM
Great article about my worst nightmare!
Adam Townsend January 12, 2011 at 04:50 AM
Totally wild stuff. We'll probably follow up or re-post this article closer to tourist season, just to get the word out.
Adam Townsend January 12, 2011 at 04:51 AM
Jackie did a great job -- real thorough. Makes me think twice about learning to surf!
Jackie Connor March 11, 2011 at 04:38 AM
in the words of bobby dylan 'don't think twice it's alright' ...learn Adam!


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