Environment & Science

Why there are so many more sharks these days

Tourists walk past a fake great white shark on display at the Manhattan Beach Pier.
Tourists walk past a fake great white shark on display at the Manhattan Beach Pier.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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Beachgoers looking to spend the holiday weekend in the surf and sand need to know two things about the great white sharks in the water.

#1 - Yes, there are more of them these days

Scientists say the increase can be attributed to overall long term growth in the fish’s population.

“We think the population has actually been increasing for about eight to 10 years now, probably due to better fisheries management. We’ve cleaned up the ocean a bit, and we’ve protected white sharks from fishing,” said Chris Lowe, director of the shark lab at California State University Long Beach.

Lowe said there’s an even more immediate reason why people may be seeing more sharks. His research has shown that juvenile sharks typically leave the region for Baja when water gets colder in the winter months.

But, he said a run of unusually warm water off the California coast has disrupted that behavior.

“What that means for this year and probably for last year is that people may actually be seeing more sharks, because not only are there new sharks coming in that are being born this year, but the sharks that were born last year never left,” Lowe said.

The second thing you should know …

… is there’s no need to panic.

While a spokesman for Los Angeles County lifeguards confirmed that more juvenile sharks have been seen than in a typical year, he said each report is investigated and that identified sharks are monitored.

“If they pose any kind of threat, or they get too close to people, we’ll close that area of beach and warn everyone to come out of the water, and we’ll close that area of beach for bathing, swimming and surfing activity,” said Kenichi Haskett, ocean lifeguard captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Haskett said no warnings have been issued on Los Angeles County beaches so far this summer, because no sharks have been large enough or have acted aggressively to warrant such action.

Still, he cautioned against trying to get up close to the marine predators, as they are wild animals with lots of teeth, and they breathe water — something human paddle boarders and surfers cannot do. 

“If people do see a shark, note that location and let the nearest lifeguard tower know as soon as possible," he said. "We will investigate any report of shark or any kind of marine life activity, whether it’s an injured seal on the beach or whether it’s a shark or any other kind of marine animal.” 

A good sign

Haskett said while this year’s number of shark sightings has been high, it’s lower than last year’s.

“Last year, we were getting sightings hourly in the Manhattan [Beach] area, because they were feeding off the stingrays,” he said.

Haskett said the number of shark sightings has risen along with observed numbers of other marine animals — something he attributed to conservation efforts. 

“I haven’t seen this much marine life activity, with dolphins and sharks and different types of marine mammals in our bay. I think it has a lot to do with Heal the Bay’s efforts at keeping the bay clean,” Haskett said. “We’re kind of coexisting with marine life now more so than we ever have.”

Lowe — who will be tracking and studying the sharks this summer — also credited part of the sharks’ rebound to conservation efforts, saying it’s heartening to be able to see them.

“To see these animals come back — actually be able to go out pretty much any day during the summer and have a chance of seeing a baby white shark, either from the beach or from an ocean pier — there’s nowhere else in the world you can go and see that. So the fact that these little white sharks are coming back, to me, it’s a conservation success story that’s unparalleled,” Lowe said.