Rising white shark populations off California signals ‘a healthy ecosystem’

White sharks have long been impacted by humans. Commercial fisheries caught them for decades, and the sharks’ primary food—marine mammals—has been hunted to the brink of extinction. After California moved to protect its white shark population back in 1994, white shark numbers have risen steadily.

This year, however, has seen a record number of white sharks swimming off the southern California coast. Chris Lowe, director of the shark lab at California State University, Long Beach, has already tagged 38 sharks this year, triple the number that was tagged last year.

White sharks are born at 4.5 to 5ft. long. As described by The Guardian, southern California’s shallows because the water is warmer (young sharks lack the ability to retain heat in colder waters), safer from predators, and full of their preferred food: stingrays. White sharks grow each year for their first five years of their life until they reach 10ft. At that point, they switch food sources to marine mammals like seals, and they spend more time away from the shoreline.

Lowe says this year has been different. Not only are there more juvenile white sharks in the waters, but they’re also staying around longer. Typically, young white sharks leave California waters for Baja California in Mexico in the fall and return in the spring when water temperatures rise again. Lowe says that while the presence of so many juvenile white sharks is a sign of a healthy, clean ecosystem, he also points to how the climate crisis, and warmer ocean temperatures, can shift the range of animals.

If you live in SoCal and feel a bit worried about the growing presence of young white sharks, don’t be. Since California started keeping records in 1950, there have been on average only three or four attacks a year in all of California—even as the state population has swelled from 15 million to 40 million.

“There are so many people in the water: you have paddleboards, kayaks, wetsuits, but the number of attacks hasn’t really changed,” said David Ebert, director of Pacific Shark Research Center at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. “That tells you that people are not on the menu, they’re not out here hunting people.”

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