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Researchers are one step closer to getting $4 million in funding that would help them in their quest to learn more about great white sharks, a proposal that would also help improve public safety as an increase in the shark population has some beach-goers on edge.

Assembly Bill 2191 — formally called the White Shark Population Monitoring and Beach Safety Program — earned a unanimous vote by the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee last week. The bill was authored by Assemblymember Patrick ODonnell (D-Long Beach) and created in conjunction with Long Beach State Universitys Shark Lab, where director Chris Lowe and students have been studying the increasing populations off the Southern California coastline for the past decade.

  • Researchers tagged seven great white sharks offshore in Sunset and Surfside beaches on Friday, in an attempt to learn more about the sharks and migration patterns. Photo courtesy of Marine Safety Officer Chris Clarke

  • A sign on the beach warns beach goers of sharks in the water as team from California State University Long Beach Marine Shark Lab prepares to tag sharks off Sunset Beach in Huntington Beach Wednesday morning. MARK RIGHTMIRE, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

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  • Chris Lowe, professor – shark & fisheries biologist at Cal State Long Beach, left, and Ralph Collier, of the Shark Research Committee, examine the wetsuit Maria Korcsmaros was wearing when she was attacked by a shark on May 30. JEFF GRITCHEN, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

  • A student inches near a shark to tag it offshore in Sunset Beach on Friday, part of a project spearheaded by Shark Lab in Long Beach. Photo: Marine Safety Officer Chris Clarke

  • A team from California State University Long Beach Marine Shark Lab prepares to tag sharks in the waters off Sunset Beach in Huntington Beach Wednesday morning. The BBC was on board filming the tagging. MARK RIGHTMIRE, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

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The funds would be dispersed over five years to various research groups along the coast. It would help fund expensive technologies, like using smart tags on great whites, using underwater robots that can track sharks and their food sources, or even testing waters for shark DNA to find out how many are in concentrated areas.

“For the last 10 to 15 years, weve seen an increase in the number of white sharks. We believe this comeback is connected to environmental protections that were established several decades ago,” Lowe said in a news release. “The good news is that they are coming back. The tricky part is that we lack the tools to monitor them.”

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The Southern California coastline has seen an influx of sharks close to shore in recent years, groups of dozens and more gathering in “hot spots.”

There were frequent shark sightings near surfers and swimmers in the South Bay, Santa Monica and Ventura about five years ago. Then they showed up in Huntington, Surfside Beach and Seal Beach in higher-than-normal numbers about three years ago.

Last summer, a group of juvenile sharks took residence in shallow shores of Long Beach, as well as further south off Dana Point and San Clemente.

The juvenile sharks that live close to shore are of little danger to the public, experts say, because they eat small catch like stingrays. Thats also a reason they may be showing up in big numbers near the shoreline, as beaches like Huntington report an influx of stingrays.

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But when the sharks get into the 10-to 12-foot-long range, they start investigating larger mammals to munch on—and not much is currently known about the behavior of these larger sharks.

Two years ago, Maria Korcsmaros nearly lost her life after being bit off Corona del Mar while training for a triathlon in May 2016, and in April 2017 swimmer Leeanne Ericson was bit off San Onofre State Beach, a piece of her leg and buttock ripped off. Sharks involved in both attacks were estimated to be at least 10 feet.

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Lowe works regularly with local lifeguard agencies to track the sharks and to come up with guidelines for advisories or beach closures when theres sightings.

The most important part of the budgetary plan is the education and outreach, he said in a previous article, arming lifeguards with information so they can make decisions that can keep the public safe. Currently, downloading buoy data takes time and can take weeks to acquire, long after a shark has left the area.

Increased funding could allow sharks to be tracked in real time.

“We are seeing unprecedented numbers of juvenile white sharks hanging out in the surf line alongside swimmers, surfers, paddle boarders and others who recreate in the ocean,” Lowe told the committee. “This is prompting more sightings, warnings and closures at local beaches than in recent memory.

“While this is alarming for beachgoers, this influx – coupled with better technology – is a perfect opportunity for us to find out why these sharks are staying closer to shore for longer periods as they grow bigger.”

The big hurdle: Funding.

“Unfortunately, we dont have the funding to keep pace with the demand for tags and monitoring,” Lowe said. “This is jeopardizing our efforts to learn about white shark behavior and help lifeguards and law enforcement better inform the public about beach safety.”

Lowe believes their spike in numbers is due to protections put in place decades ago, making it illegal to catch great whites and putting restrictions on gill nets near shore that would frequently catch sharks as by-catch. The protections on seals and sea lions—sharks food source—can also be a reason their numbers are flourishing.

ODonnell, who introduced Lowe to the committee, noted that record numbers of shark sightings during 2017 had overextended the Shark Labs resources.

“The numbers of sharks at our beaches were so high that Shark Lab researchers ran out of shark tags,” ODonnell said in a news release. “We must be willing to invest in those who are doing the work. This is a human, environmental and economic issue.”

The bill now moves to the Appropriations Committee.

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