Peter Howorth

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Peter Howorth

June 29, 2014 12:12 AM

Environmental groups sometimes petition the federal or state government, or both, to have a species listed on the endangered species list. When this occurs, the government must decide whether the petition should be reviewed or simply dismissed. Considering the potential threat of litigation from such groups, the government often does review such petitions.

The government reviews are comprehensive, often involving teams of several scientists for several months or longer. The teams then report their findings and recommendations. The government must then decide if a petition is warranted and if the listing process should proceed.

When a petition to list a species is received by the federal government, the species is afforded the same protection it had before the petition. However, when such a petition is received by the state of California, the species is treated as if it is already on the California endangered species list until a determination is made.

This means that no "take" of the species is allowed except under special permits. A take can mean anything from simply disturbing a species to obtaining specimens for science.

Once a species is considered a candidate for listing at state level, the government must decide under what conditions takes might be allowed under permit. This also demands time and resources. Meanwhile, existing research permits are no longer valid, so urgently needed research is stymied.

A petition to list the eastern North Pacific population of great white sharks went through an exhaustive federal review. Using the best available data, NOAA Fisheries scientists determined that the population was far larger than claimed in the petition. The scientists concluded that the petition was unwarranted and it was dismissed.

More recently, scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife came to the same conclusion after a similar process. The California Fish and Game Commission, a politically appointed body, concurred with its scientists.

Independently of the two groups of government scientists, a team of eminently qualified shark experts from various parts of the world, including California, re-evaluated a scientific paper cited by the petitioners as justification for listing the great white shark. They examined the methods used by in the paper and concluded that the study was flawed in many ways.

Using the same data gathered in the original study, the group concluded that the sub-population of great white sharks in California alone was likely an order of magnitude larger than proposed for the entire eastern North Pacific. The authors stated that "the true eastern North Pacific white shark population size is likely several-fold greater" than the California sub-population.

The paper, released earlier this month and titled "A Re-evaluation of the Size of the White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) Population off California, USA," could well be used as a case study of how scientific studies are misused by so-called environmental groups.

"Unfortunately, there is considerable incentive for some conservation organizations to quickly support listing species, often after minimal critical scientific review," claim the authors of the re-evaluation.

"As limited resources are best used in protecting species that are truly at risk of extinction, unwarranted petitions may draw resources away from more deserving species. It therefore is critical that the best possible information be used in listing reviews to minimize undue burdens and insure the limited resources are applied to recovery of the neediest species," explain the authors.

"These unsubstantiated petitions actually put the Endangered Species Act at risk by arming detractors with an example of why they feel the act isn't working, when in reality it's been very effective," said Dr. Christopher Lowe, a shark researcher at Cal State Long Beach and one of the authors of the re-evaluation.

Sport or commercial fishing for great white sharks has been banned in California since 1994. According to the authors of the re-evaluation, the population is already likely to be improving.

After so many shark encounters and attacks on pinnipeds, sea otters and people throughout California over the past few years, this certainly seems to be the case.

Peter Howorth has followed the sea for more than 50 years, first as a competitive free diver, surfer and professional diver. He captured marine mammals for sea life parks in the 1960s and founded the nonprofit Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center in 1976. He has authored books and has been a columnist for the News-Press for more than 25 years. Any opinions are his and not necessarily the newspaper's.