Great white sharks off West Coast to be considered for endangered listing

The federal government will examine whether to protect the West Coast population of great white sharks under the Endangered Species Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday.

Four environmental groups had filed petitions with the NOAA Fisheries Service this summer to list the West Coast population on the grounds that accidental catches, illegal fishing and the accumulation of contaminants threaten the iconic species. Research studies suggest that as few as 350 great white sharks could be swimming off the coasts of the United States and Mexico.

Craig Wingert, a regional Endangered Species Act policy adviser for NOAA, said the agency will assemble a scientific team to conduct “a comprehensive review” and will issue a final decision by June.

Global trade of great whites is regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and it is illegal to kill great whites off U.S. coasts in either the Pacific or Atlantic. An endangered species listing would allow the federal government to designate critical habitat for the West Coast population of great white sharks and possibly impose restrictions on other activities that threaten it.

Whit Sheard, Pacific counsel for the advocacy group Oceana, said, given the pressures West Coast great whites are facing, “an endangered listing might possibly be one of the only ways to keep these species from going extinct.”

The move by the United States came the same day that the government of Western Australia announced it would hunt and kill great whites swimming off its coasts that it considers a threat to humans. Five people have been killed by great white sharks there in the past year.

“We will always put the lives and safety of beachgoers ahead of the shark,” Western Australian state Premier Colin Barnett told reporters.

But Christopher Neff, a doctoral student at the University of Sydney, noted there is no research to support the idea that shark hunting reduces the threat to humans. Western Australia’s move could even undermine shark research, he noted, because “a shark tagged by scientists in South Africa or San Francisco may have their shark culled under the [new] program if it sets off the tracking device.”

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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