By DAVID MCGUIRE
We surfers along the central coast of California call this time of year Sharktober. This is the season when the white sharks of the northeast Pacific population return from an incredible migration of over 2000 miles to aggregate at a few locations along the west coast to feed on elephant seals and sea lions. Each fall white sharks, are observed in increasing numbers at large breeding colonies of seals at Ano Nuevo Island, the Farallon Islands, Drakes Bay, and Guadalupe Island Baja, Mexico to the south, and occasionally along the coastline.
Surfers along the California coastline often observe white sharks patrolling outside the surf during the months from late August to December. Yet most of these observations with white sharks result in few or no attacks at all. To the south, juvenile sharks and Young of Year white sharks are seen near shore year round. But if you surf in the Red Triangle where I do, the majority of white shark surfer encounters and attacks occur in California during October.
Occasionally sharks make a mistake and bite a surfer. When there is an incident, like that experienced by local surfer Jonathan Kathrein at Stinson Beach, the papers and press go into a literal feeding frenzy. Reports are loaded with adjectives like “grisly death” and “white sharks swarming” and “blood thirsty man eaters”. Jonathan survived the ordeal and went on to write several books, including one I contributed to – Surviving the Shark, where Jon reports the media following the accident were more ferocious as the shark.
What is needed, Jonathan and many shark survivors we interview argue, is a shift in our perspective. Most shark bites are accidental and far more rare than we would believe given the media attention. Sharks are in fact more endangered than dangerous.
What the papers fail to report is the headline Man Bites Shark! For every shark bite on humans, there are hundreds of thousands of sharks killed every year. One study estimates one hundred million sharks are being fished each year, many for the fins to make the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. While scientists argue the numbers- because they are extremely difficult to come by and are estimates- the fact is we are overfishing sharks out of the ocean. Yet scientific studies have demonstrated that sharks play a vital role for healthy ocean ecosystems. Numerous studies have been published on the benefit of sharks to coral Caribbean reefs and fish populations, further reinforcing the ecological importance of sharks.
As the top- or apex predator, sharks are the regulators of fish and marine mammals. They cull the weak, the stupid and the sick, thereby strengthening the remaining population. The removal of apex predators can cause what is called a trophic cascade. Fish or marine mammals without predatory pressure reproduce and deplete the fish on the next level of the food chain. This in turn has impacts on the population beneath thereby disrupting the balance and health of the oceans.
The killing of sharks for fins is illegal in US waters but illegal and unregulated fishing and shark finning still occurs on these and other species of sharks. Here at home, young white sharks are still killed in the drift net gill fishery for swordfish and thresher shark, despite the continued objection of conservationists from the whale, sea turtle and fisheries organizations to switch out gear.
Shark Stewards uses the term Sharktober to celebrate the return of Great White Sharks to our Sanctuary and to motivate an understanding and not to fear or hate sharks. One of Shark Steward’s major efforts is to collaborate on education and outreach during sharktober, including the California Academy of Sciences “Sharklife” and Sharktoberfest at the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Supporting our Sanctuaries, strengthening our existing regulations and stopping the consumption of shark products like shark fin soup can all help increase the protection of the pelagic sharks that visit our waters. But the fight continues to save sharks, and education and awareness on consumption and overfishing are critical both in China where most shark fin is consumed, but also in the West.
Every Sharktober, Shark Stewards is celebrating sharks with shark awareness events including Farallon Island wildlife excursions, emphasizing the importance of sharks to the Bay and Sanctuary, as well as looking at the entire ecosystem of the Gulf of the Farallones from plankton to sharks. Join us for an unforgettable experience and help Shark Stewards celebrate and fight for sharks!
Over one hundred species of sharks are threatened with extinction through overfishing and the shark fin trade. Sharks need our help.
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