Off the Ventura coast, it’s shark week, every week, or at least it has been in 2017. The finned, sometimes frightening fish will be the subject of a special talk dubbed “The Truth About Sharks” on Wednesday, Aug. 16, in Oxnard, where expert Apryl DeLancey says she hopes to dispel needless concern.
Increased sightings of juvenile white, leopard and mako sharks has drawn interest from beachgoers and the media, but DeLancey says there’s not much to worry about, rather, more sharks may be a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
“It’s pretty awesome that we’re seeing more of the predatory sharks for a number of reasons,” said DeLancey. “It means that protections are working for their food and for them.”
In June, a great white shark was spotted swimming near the Ventura Pier, prompting a shark sighting advisory for swimmers in the area. The shark was about 6-feet long, making it a juvenile of the species. Male great white sharks can grow up to 13 feet in length, while females, up to 16 feet. A great white shark was also spotted in the Santa Barbara harbor, and many more have been spotted along the coast down through Orange County.
Sharks typically migrate northward from Baja during the summer months, returning in the winter, says DeLancey. In July, it was discovered by California State University, Long Beach, Shark Lab researcher and Director Chris Lowe that sharks have been using areas off the Ventura coast as nurseries, which could explain why more juvenile sightings have been reported. Typically, juveniles will stay around the nurseries for several months before they too begin to migrate, and these juveniles make up a large majority of the sightings.
CSU, Channel Islands, Professor and Chair of the Environmental Science and Resource Management program Sean Anderson has a unique way of seeing these juveniles: via drone. His department has spearheaded a beach-mapping program utilizing drones to determine not only the health of the beach, but also the economic potential via tourists.
Anderson says that the increase in juvenile sightings is a twofold issue.
“From an ecology standpoint, the fact that we have these baby white sharks means we have a healthier ecosystem that shows, ecologically, we’re doing better,” said Anderson. “In terms of the public perception, there’s still this whole Jaws thing.”
In 1975, a certain film from director Stephen Spielberg helped cement the concept of killer sharks into the public psyche. Jaws, adapted from the original novel by Peter Benchley, became the benchmark for all deadly marine animals and spread the idea that great white sharks are blood thirsty, revenge-seeking machines from the deep sea.
Later in life, Benchley dedicated his career to writing nonfiction works about sharks, advocating for their conservation, becoming a member of the National Council of Environmental Defense and a spokesman for its Oceans Program.
“The shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain, it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors,” wrote Benchley in “Oceans in Peril” for the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit titled Ocean Planet.
Seventy to 100 million sharks are killed annually by commercial fishermen, with most of the sharks having their fins removed before being discarded back into the ocean. Most fins are sold in China, where shark fin soup is considered a delicacy. In 2012, however, China banned the soup from government functions and the popularity of the dish has begun to decline.
In an NPR report from 2015, though, shortfin mako sharks, the primary shark used for consumption in the United States, has been on the rise, despite the shark being listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species.
Anderson says that the fact that great white shark juveniles are appearing more often can be attributed to protections passed by the state of California in 1994, when gill-netting – use of wall-like nets designed to catch sea creatures of certain sizes that were responsible for an enormous amount of bycatch, i.e., fish and other marine creatures not intended to be caught – was banned.
“The story this summer seems to be a direct consequence of that,” said Anderson. “We were artificially crushing the great white shark population.”
Fears of sharks aren’t always unwarranted, however. In July, a kayaker was knocked into the water by a curious shark, escaping unharmed. In September of 2016, a diver was bitten on the foot at Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara, resulting in broken toes.
Alex Wallace, a 24-year-old native Venturan, is a regular surfer. Earlier this year, he and his friends came into close proximity of a shark thrashing in the water.
“It got too close for comfort, so we moved down the beach from it,” said Wallace. “It’s startling, but I didn’t really feel like it’d be a great danger because they’re all smaller sharks right now, mostly feeding on bat rays and fish.”
Wallace says he spots a juvenile shark “almost every time” he surfs.
“I kind of like it,” said Wallace. “Keeps the crowd down.”
To beach goers for whom sharks are too much of a scare, DeLancey offers her advice.
“Appreciate the fact that you saw a shark,” says DeLancey. “Great white sharks are not going to come after you, and if it makes you feel better, calmly get out of the water.”
DeLancey is currently in search of citizen scientists to help catalog sharks along the coast, documenting when and where they were seen. For more information on her program, visit www.williseeashark.com or email shark sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Channel Islands Maritime Museum’s Speaker Series presents Apryl DeLancey’s “The Truth About Sharks” on Wednesday, Aug. 16, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at 3900 Bluefin Circle in Oxnard. For more information, visit www.cimmvc.org. For more information on Professor Sean Anderson’s program, visit www.piratelab.org or esrm.zone.