Scientists still have a lot to learn about great white sharks, but federal officials say the sometimes-elusive ocean predator likely won't face extinction anytime soon.
That decision came after a months long study into the northeastern Pacific Ocean white shark -- a population found off the West Coast, from Mexico to the Bering Sea. The study into the sharks' status was prompted by two petitions to list the species as endangered.
Researchers, however, said they found the white sharks' population stable or even increasing.
"(The) population is not in danger of extinction and does not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act," according to a statement this week from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The review indicated more than 200 adult female sharks in the population, a number that's above what would have triggered concerns about extinction, said Heidi Dewar, a Fisheries research biologist.
But petitioners disagreed with the findings, calling them overly optimistic.
"We think it is a bad decision and flies in the face of the best available science," said Geoff Shester, California's program director for Oceana, one of the petitioners. They plan to review the agency's findings and look at options, which could include filing suit.
"Ultimately, this battle is far from over," Shester said.
The groups petitioned for federal protection in August 2012, saying the sharks are under threat of extinction from several human causes. Federal officials found enough cause to undergo the review.
"We have a unique group," Dewar said. "One of our goals is to preserve that uniqueness and preserve that diversity."
There are a lot of unknowns, she said. But a team of eight federal research scientists used several methods to determine the number of sharks and the population's likelihood to either grow or shrink.
"All the available data points to a healthy population that's increasing," she said.
As the federal review was underway, state officials also started taking a look at the sharks, prompted by similar petitions. California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials will look at whether the sharks should be listed as threatened or endangered at the state level.
The review is independent of the federal one, and a decision isn't expected until early 2014.
The sharks already garner some protection in the state.
In California, species under review get the same protection as those already on the list. So anyone who catches a white shark now, even unintentionally, may face penalties unless they have a permit. The additional layer of protection took effect in March and lasts, at least, until a decision is made.
In addition, sport and commercial fishing for white sharks has been banned here since the mid-1990s.
A main threat to the white shark population is incidental capture in fishing nets. Groups who pushed for the reviews said they hoped listing the sharks would limit incidental catches.
The sharks play a crucial role in the marine ecosystem and are known as a top predator, but scientists say there is still a lot to learn about them.
Shester said he hopes the petitions highlighted the need to better understand the white sharks.
For more information on the Fisheries' review and decision, go to http://swr.nmfs.noaa.gov. ___
(c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
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