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Great White sharks could be good for beachgoers (but a horror movie for sting rays)




Chris Lowe with a juvenile white shark.
Chris Lowe with a juvenile white shark.
Courtesy of Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab

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Summer is approaching and, across Southern California, beachgoers from San Onofre to Ventura are gearing up to splash in the Pacific.

So are teams of young Great White sharks. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8qhNbu3w7o

SoCal's favorite beaches have become regular hang-outs for juvenile white sharks. They've been making a comeback along the coast thanks to conservation efforts that have restored marine life -  there's just a lot more to eat in our warm, shallow waters these days. 

That's why the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach is getting behind Assembly Bill 2191 now making its way through the legislature. The proposed law would increase resources for shark research and strengthen collaboration between researchers and first responders, including lifeguards.

The pros of having great white sharks (yes, you read that right)

Marine mammal populations have rebounded along the coast and that's resulted in a little too much of a good thing. So, as the top guy in the food chain, white sharks help keep marine mammal populations at a health level. 

White sharks may also help protect people from another aquatic attack. "One of their favorite things to eat are stingrays," said Chris Lowe, Director of the Shark Lab at CalState Long Beach. "Stingray populations have exploded over the last 50 years– in fact, thousands of people are injured by stingrays in Southern California, every year. So, what if those baby white sharks hanging out at your favorite beach, are actually keeping you safer from being stung by a stingray."

Shark Lab's wish list: high-tech ocean gadgets

There's still a lot that's unknown about the behavior of our local white sharks, which is why researchers are asking for more funding. Exactly where the mothers give birth to their young isn't even clear yet. But with the technology available today, Lowe is confident we could learn a lot more about shark behavioral patterns– knowledge is is very useful to lifeguards in keeping beachgoers safe. 

Chris Lowe holding/explaining a shark tracking device
Chris Lowe holding/explaining a shark tracking device
Courtesy of the shark lab, CalState Long Beach

Tagging technology has advanced to provide realtime reports of shark movement. Drones can be used to identify what kind of shark is in the water, since great whites have other shark companions out there. "We have underwater selfie-stations and the sharks are curious and swim up and take a selfie," said Lowe. "And then we can use those video-pictures to help identify those individuals based on unique facial features."

It's not all "Jaws" out there

Yes, shark bites are a real danger. But young sharks, like the ones hanging around our beaches, are a far cry from a Spielberg movie-monster. "I would argue that baby white sharks don't even they're a white shark yet," said Lowe. "They're still afraid of everything because they don't know what a predator is yet."

Despite the increased presence of sharks, there hasn't been a pattern to cause much alarm. "Even though people are amongst those sharks all the time, they don't seem to be bothering with people," said Lowe. 

But common sense in the water is still a good idea. For swimmers and surfers it's best to keep a keen eye on your surroundings. "Watch wildlife," said Lowe. "A lot of wildlife is very much in tune to predators in the ocean and if you see the seals or sea lions acting weird around you or trying to get up on your surf board, it's probably time to get out of the water." 

Lowe is hopeful that if we learn enough about coexisting with white sharks, instead of fearing the beach, it could be a plus for tourism. "There may be a time when people actually come to Southern California to see a white shark."