Swimming + Fishing = Trouble in Great White Shark Land

//

This weekend’s shark attack at Manhattan Beach, Calif., demonstrates that when swimming and fishing occur together in a region with great white sharks, the risk of humans being hurt or killed by sharks can increase.

Bait on fishing lines may attract great whites seeking food, bringing them into areas populated by swimmers and other recreational water users. In this case, long-distance swimmer Steven Robles wound up face-to-face with a 7-foot-long juvenile great white shark. The shark bit Robles in the chest, causing blood to spew into the water before Robles was rescued by surfers and taken to a hospital. He has since been released and is recovering.

Best Ocean Animal Photos of 2013

A video showing what happened has since gone viral. It documents that fishermen hooked the great white, which they say was an accident. Witnesses report that the shark struggled to free itself for about half an hour before it attacked Robles. (Warning: The video contains explicit language.)

As of March 2013, great white sharks are protected by California’s Endangered Species Act. The act holds that these sharks cannot be hunted, pursued or killed off the coast of California. Those found guilty of doing so could face criminal prosecution.

Even before great whites were added to the state’s Endangered Species Act, they were, as of 1994, off limits to commercial and sport fishing operations. As this weekend’s episode proves, however, enforcing such protections is challenging. Great whites wind up as bycatch in commercial gill nets all of the time. Individual fishermen can always just say that they hooked a shark by accident, whether or not that was true.

In this instance, the shark did get free. According to multiple news reports, it swam in the region for about 20 minutes before disappearing. Since it too was injured, its fate remains unknown.

Shark Attacks Expected to Rise This Summer

For now, experts put the burden of protection on swimmers. The Global Shark Attack File, for example, advises, “Avoid areas where any type of fishing activity is taking place or offal is dumped into the sea. Reason: These areas attract sharks.”

The situation could change, however, as shark populations continue to recover thanks to the protections, and more and more swimmers and fishermen are drawn to the water. Climate change is also affecting the situation.

George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, explained to Discovery News: “Global climate change has resulted in warmer waters to the north, prompting humans to enter waters earlier in the season, staying in them later” and over an expanded range.

In California, shark sightings are becoming more common at Southern California beaches, so swimmers there, in particular, need to be on guard.

Photo: Great white shark. Credit: Alexey Semeneev, Wikimedia Commons