A California coastal community is experiencing a peculiar sort of great white shark problem. People aboard paddleboards and atop the local fishing pier are said to be harassing the apex predators, and the state is warning them to stop.

“White sharks are a candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act and therefore fully protected,” Traci Larinto and Michelle Horeczko, part of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s White Shark Status Review Team, explained in a statement. “They cannot be taken or pursued. The public should take steps to avoid white sharks while fishing or being out on the water.”

Eric Martin swims with a great white shark off Manhattan Beach Pier in Southern California. Photo by Dani Baker

Eric Martin swims with a great white shark off Manhattan Beach Pier in Southern California. Photo by Dani Baker

This is a statewide warning, but the main problem area is Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County. For some reason, several juvenile white sharks—measuring to about 10 feet—have congregated off a long stretch of beach, notably from the pier north to a surf spot called El Porto.

Standup paddlers have journeyed out to try to locate them and videotape them with their waterproof cameras, and some anglers have been trying to hook them.
“Right now, every surfer/thrill seeker with a GoPro is going out to Manhattan Beach and trying to film them, ride them, and catch them on hook and line,” said Christopher Lowe, a Cal State Long Beach professor and white shark expert. “Most people do not understand CESA regulations and that even incidental catch [or] being caught swimming after a shark with a GoPro camera can be considered take or harassment and is a citable, even jailable offense.”

Juvenile white sharks feed off Southern California from summer into early winter, primarily on small fish, including other sharks and rays. The number of sightings is up this year in several areas, and that might be due to an increase in the number of sharks. But a definite factor is an increase in the number of standup paddlers, and the use of GoPro cameras.

Paddleboard sightings began to make news in September. In October, a YouTube video of a close encounter, shared by Mike Durand, went semi-viral. He used a helmet-cam to record a shark swimming beneath his board as he paddled off El Porto. Video is posted here:

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Also catching the eye of the DFW was a November 8 story that displayed a photo showing Eric Martin swimming with a 9-foot white shark. Martin, co-director of the Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium at the end of the pier, said he had always wanted to swim with a great white.

Not long after he ventured out with a mask and long pole for protection, one of two sharks that were spotted from the pier cruised within feet of him, as people on the pier watched.

Larinto, of the DFW, says Martin’s action sent a message that this is acceptable and safe behavior.

Martin, who has spotted dozens of white sharks from the pier over the years, said he swam with the sharks, in part, to prove that the juvenile sharks do not present a serious danger to swimmers and surfers. He sees them quite often from the pier, often close to surfers.

Fishermen, however, are no friends of the sharks. Martin has watched anglers intentionally try to hook them. Last year he almost got into a fight with a man who refused to let him cut his line after he had hooked a white shark. When Martin called the police, the man allowed him to cut the line.

Last week KTLA posted footage captured by paddleboarder Nathan Anderson off El Porto. Anderson stated that three white sharks were picked up by the camera, all within 100 yards of one another (the men can be seen pursuing the sharks). The video was uploaded last Monday and is posted here:

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As for fishing for sharks from the pier, it’s not illegal. But catching white sharks is illegal and hooking them for catch-and-release seems to fall into somewhat of a legal gray area.

But these are a protected species that may or may not be mounting a comeback after years of overfishing. It’s best to leave them alone.

Said Lowe: “One rumor is that a couple of fishermen have caught and killed some sharks off El Porto and supposedly found squid in the stomachs. I just don’t think the public understands the ramifications of the law here.”

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