California's Fish and Game Commission voted Wednesday to consider a petition to add great white sharks to the state's endangered species list.

The 4-0 vote in Sacramento immediately bestowed state protection on the sharks pending a final decision, which will come in the spring of 2014 after a year of research by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

State Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Mountain View, echoed a common concern among those who favored the petition about the possible loss of one of the ocean's top predators. Fong, author of a law banning the possession and sale of shark fins, said, "The loss of the great white shark from the coast of California would not be an isolated tragedy, but may be the start of a much larger decline of our ocean's health."

California Shark Attack map

The commission also heard comments from marine biologists, fishermen and representatives of ocean advocacy groups. The majority of comments were in support of the petition, with several citing gill net fishing as a particular threat to the sharks.

Though targeting and selling great whites is already prohibited, there are now no limits on the numbers of incidental catches.

Environmental groups have been alarmed by two recent studies that have estimated the shark population, whose range extends from Mexico to Alaska to Hawaii, at 339 adults and "sub-adults" off the Marin County coast and Mexico, two main great white habitats. And the number of reproductively mature females was estimated at just under 100. The estimates are far lower than researchers expected.


Advertisement

Other speakers at the hearing, however, raised concerns about the accuracy of the recent shark population estimates, saying they need to be compared to historic numbers to show whether the population has been increasing or decreasing.

"I think these animals are very stealthy," one fisherman said. "I don't think the count that you have is the real count."

"White sharks are iconic ocean creatures," said Michael Sutton. "As the ocean's top predators, they deserve all the protection we can afford them.