Article body copy
California’s white sharks have the law on their side. Sort of. They have been a protected species since 1994, when legislation made it a misdemeanor to even attempt to “hunt, pursue, catch, capture or kill” one of the big fish. Over the past few decades, a handful of anglers have been prosecuted for illegally killing white sharks in California, resulting in fines, probation, and community service.
But these cases have been the rare exceptions to the hundreds of others in which anglers using heavy shark fishing tackle have hooked, landed, and released white sharks along Southern California beaches without so much as paying a fine. The problem is a loophole in the existing rules that lets anglers off the hook: claim you were trying to catch something else. “They just say they’re targeting bat rays or other sharks or halibut,” says Chris Lowe, a biologist and director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach. If authorities can’t prove the angler was trying to catch a white shark, there is essentially no case.
But California’s slack laws on white shark fishing are about to cinch a little tighter.
Starting on January 1, 2023, recreational anglers in California will face new fishing restrictions that make it illegal to use shark bait, shark lures, or shark attractants, known as chum, “within one nautical mile [1.9 kilometers] of any shoreline, pier, or jetty when a white shark is either visible or known to be present.” The language gives some biting power to what Lowe describes as the current “toothless” regulations.
“It provides game wardens with a little more ammunition to enforce the law,” he says.
Yet some shark advocates think the new rules, which were signed into law by California governor Gavin Newsom on September 19, 2022, take the wrong approach. They say there’s a simpler, more elegant solution: banning certain types of shark fishing tackle, especially giant hooks and wire leaders, which are needed to land sharks with large teeth, such as white sharks.
“No one out there needs to be fishing with wire leaders,” says Sean Van Sommeran, founder of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, California. “All the sharks that you’re allowed to catch and eat, and that you can catch from shore, can be caught with monofilament line.”
John Gorman, a Southern California shark protection advocate, also thinks outlawing heavy-duty fishing tackle, at least in certain areas, would effectively put an end to white shark landings. He feels the new rules create an obvious loophole. “While it’s worded slightly differently, I don’t think it makes any meaningful difference whatsoever” to the existing law, Gorman says.
By taking an approach based on whether or not a shark is “visible or known to be present,” the new regulations still give anglers a way out, says David McGuire, director of the organization Shark Stewards. He thinks fishers may gain impunity by claiming they did not see one of the fish or know that one was present.
“Unfortunately, our fish and wildlife code isn’t like the state’s vehicular code,” McGuire says. “These anglers can get off the hook by claiming ignorance, whereas if you run a red light, clearly you’ve violated the law.”
Taking action against someone fishing for white sharks would be difficult. According to Eric Kord, a marine enforcement officer with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), to enforce the new law “there needs to have been a credible sighting of a white shark, or we’d have to show that the fisherman knew a white shark was known to be present.”
A credible sighting, Kord says, might be one reported by a lifeguard, scientist, or another expert whose job is to look for sharks. Once a sighting is confirmed, this information would have to be relayed to any anglers in the vicinity. Only then, Kord says, could they be held accountable should they catch a white shark.
As for the suggestion to ban wire leaders and large hooks, Kord and his colleague John Ugoretz, the CDFW’s pelagic fisheries ecosystem program manager, explain that a permanent regional ban on shark-specific fishing tackle would unfairly impact anglers fishing for shark species that are legal to take.
But McGuire says that step is still needed.
In early November, a necropsy on a small white shark that had washed ashore dead in San Diego, California, revealed unmistakable evidence of having been caught by sport fishers, including a ruptured jaw, line tears across its flank, and damaged internal organs.
“This shark,” McGuire says, “was clearly being fished for sport, and it died as a result.” A ban on heavy-duty shark tackle, he says, would have prevented this event.