SANTA CRUZ -- Locals ate up news about sharks this year, and the sharks provided plenty of chum.
There were numerous shark spottings in the waters off Santa Cruz County, making them one of the top stories of the year. While whale sightings dominated the news cycle the prior year, things got a bit edgier in 2012.
Sharks visited November's Cold Water Classic, made several appearances near Rio del Mar during the summer, got up close and personal with a sightseeing boat off the mouth of the Pajaro River and even nipped the kayak of a Pleasure Point paddler.
It is difficult to remember a year when the near-mythological ocean predators made so many real-life appearances locally. Even so, environmentalists warned their numbers are dangerously low.
"There have been a number of sightings up and down the coast," said local expert Sean Van Sommeran of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation. "I mostly attribute it the fact that the network for reporting sightings is very sensitive."
It may have seemed like there were more sightings, but state Fish and Game statistics show the big fish just aren't biting the way they used to. Shark attacks in California averaged about 21 every 10 years from the 1970s through the 1990s, but dropped to a total of seven in the 2000s.
However, the number is up to five since 2010, including two fatalities, one as recently as Oct. 23. Both deaths were off Surf Beach near Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County.
In addition, sharks are now a leading cause of death among a population of southern sea otters off Southern California, a development that puzzles scientists -- sharks don't eat sea otters.
Great whites are responsible for almost all shark attacks in California. Since "Jaws" became the cinematic equivalent of a beachcomber's worst nightmare, sharks have captured the public's imagination, and their popularity continues to soar with cultural events such as the Discovery Channel's Shark Week.
"I think it's a childish fascination with predators, with big things with large teeth," Van Sommeran said.
The fascination turned back into fear this year when Australian authorities sought to lift a ban on shark hunting after the fifth fatal attack in 10 months. While the number of attacks here pale in comparison, environmentalists warns that sharks' low numbers -- about 220 are believed to exist off California's coast -- mean they are worthy of protection.
California has taken several steps to protect sharks, including banning shark hunting 20 years ago and last year banning shark-finning and foods such as shark fin soup. Monterey-based Oceana and several other groups are now asking the federal government to list sharks as a federally recognized endangered species.
"If we fail to address the bycatch of white sharks in our fisheries, we could lose one of the most important predators off our coast forever," said Geoff Shester, Oceana's California program director. "The Endangered Species Act is the single best tool to prevent that."
In September, the National Marine Fisheries Service said it would decide on the Endangered Species Act request, with a decision typically taking about a year.
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On the net
To view the California shark attack map, visit www.santacruzsentinel.com/display/ci_21048958