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Why The Uptick In Shark Sightings Is Actually A Good Sign For Conservation Efforts

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Television's Shark Week may still be a ways off, but here on the Southern California coast, it's been something of a shark month, with increased sightings and beach closures. A female swimmer was bitten by a shark exactly a month ago near San Onofre Beach, and last week beaches at San Onofre were closed again, after more than two dozen sharks were spotted off the shore. "We've definitely seen an increase [in shark sightings this year]," San Onofre Lifeguard Lt. Rod Mellott told LAist. Long Beach also issued a shark advisory earlier this month.

Shark sightings are, of course, nothing new on the California coastline, but there are a number of factors that can account for the recent uptick in sightings. However, a major takeaway that could easily be missed by frightened beachgoers is that scientists actually view the increased presence of sharks as a good thing. It means ocean conservation attempts have been working, and the shark population is rebounding from their low numbers in past years.

According to Science Daily, over the past half century sharks—and specifically great whites—have been "effectively ou​​sted from their natural environment by humans." The spike in sightings, particularly the sightings of juvenile great whites, means that regulations like the Clean Water Act and the Marine Life Protection Act are doing exactly what the legislation was intended to do: protect ocean ecosystems.

"Sharks, very sadly, have a bad reputation," Jackie Cannata, an education specialist at Heal the Bay's Santa Monica Pier Aquarium told LAist, but they play an integral role in "keeping the ocean balanced."

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"Not only do they balance out the food chain, but they eat sick fish and keep those out of our fisheries," Cannata explained. "They're what we call apex predators, at the top of the food chain. Certain animals, like sharks, can help regulate an ecosystem's food chain from the top."

"We'd like to believe that the reason their population is coming up—which, from a conservation standpoint, is a very good thing, as sharks are really important to our healthy oceans—is because of all these protections that we've put on things in past years, like marine mammals, and other food sources." Cannata continued. "With seals and sea lions being protected, those populations surged, and then that allows for the adult sharks to actually have more to eat, so then they're reproducing more, and we're seeing this maybe richer population for the younger sharks," she said. Cannata sees the increased numbers as a result of the protections on both sharks—and their prey.

According to renowned shark expert and director of the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab Dr. Chris Lowe, media reports on shark sightings have also been missing a crucial part of the story: the fact that many of the sharks being spotted are juveniles who are using the coastal waters as "cradles," Lowe said. "[T]hey're not clarifying that these are babies and they are using our beaches as nurseries," he told Science Daily, adding that these beaches are the safest place for the young sharks.

"It has taken decades, but the reason we know [all the conservation] efforts are working is because these animals are coming back," Lowe said. "If the coastal ocean is getting healthier with five times more people living in Coastal California, this is because we have done a great job at regulating water quality."

There are also several other facts at play. "Shark season" in our waters typically stretches from May to October, with the finned creatures heading south toward Mexico as the ocean around California cools down, and then returning when temperatures pick up again. However, Forbes reports that during strong El Niño years when waters are warmer, sharks tend to stay in California even after October. Warmer waters could also play a role in the surge in recent sightings, which San Onofre's Lt. Mellott cited as a potential factor. According to Heal the Bay, it's believed that most of the juvenile white sharks didn’t leave Southern California over this past winter.

So what now? "The public has to learn to live with these predators once again," Lowe told Science Daily. "We have to now learn to share these environments."

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