SANTA CRUZ -- Northern California environmentalists are teaming up to ask the state and federal government to step up protections for great white sharks, seeking to have them declared an endangered species deserving of the highest level of regulatory safeguards.

The request was filed Friday with the federal National Marine Fisheries Service by Monterey-based Oceana and the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity. If the federal agency decides to take up the petition, a decision would take more than a year.

"Our end goal is both the federal and state government listing the U.S. West Coast population of great white sharks as endangered," said Ashley Blacow, a spokeswoman for Oceana, saying the groups are seeking added conservation measures, particularly when it comes to drift net and gill net fisheries.

Miyoko Sakashita, the Center for Biological Diversity's oceans director, said the science around white sharks is only now emerging, including how distinct the West Coast population is and their relatively low numbers.

If approved, the designation could lead to greater habitat protections, stronger limits on bycatch and increased funding for studies.

"We do a lot of Endangered Species Act requests and it does tend to increase the science around a species," Sakashita said.

The commercial and recreational fishing of white sharks is illegal in California, and the practice of shark-finning is banned along western U.S.

But a handful of juvenile sharks are mistakenly caught in nets, an average of about 10 a year, Blacow said. Oceana suspects more incidental catches go unreported.

An evolutionary castaway, white sharks are the only remaining survivors of the genus Carcharodon. They are ferocious hunters and an apex predator in the ocean, congregating near Año Nuevo, the Farralon Islands and Guadalupe Island in Mexico.

Numbers are difficult to determine, but recent studies concluded there are about 220 adults and near-adults near the Central Coast region, and fewer than 400 statewide. The International Union for Conservation of Nature regards them as a vulnerable species, one step above endangered.

Blacow said the request, which is being officially announced today, also would be made to the state Fish and Game Commission. The designation can bring added protections such as more fishery observers and additional research dollars, potentially critical for an elusive, poorly understood species that has long battled an image problem.

"We know more that we used to, but we don't know enough," Blacow said.

Wild Earth Guardians also recently petitioned the government to have great whites listed as endangered. It would take two years for any new legal protections to go into place.

Follow Sentinel reporter Jason Hoppin on Twitter @scnewsdude

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©2012 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)

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