What's up with sharks off SLO County? Researcher wants to team with Cal Poly to find out

A pilot flying high above the waters just off Oceano last month reportedly witnessed a scene that’s becoming more and more common along the California coast — 13 large sharks swimming close to the beach. It was a shockingly large number for some, but not Chris Lowe.

He's been the director of the California State University, Long Beach, Shark Lab for the last 20 years and has witnessed scenes like it before in Southern California as he's watched great white shark populations grow over the past 10 years. Fishing regulations implemented in 1994 are credited for helping shark numbers rebound.

But the question remains — why are sharks gathering in such large groups?

"We don't know if there is a social component to that or if they all want to be in the same place because that’s where all the stingrays are or if the water is warmer," Lowe said.

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Finding the answers to such questions is why Lowe teamed up with Assemblyman Patrick O'Donnell, D-Long Beach, to introduce a bill to help secure $3.75 million in funding to further research at the Shark Lab — funding that would go toward continued shark research in Southern California and a potential partnership with Cal Poly that could lead to greater understanding of great white sharks' behavior in SLO County.

The funding is currently included in the $200 billion California budget that was approved by lawmakers last week and sent to Gov. Jerry Brown.

“We know white sharks are moving more when they get larger, but we really know very little about their movements along the southern Central Coast, the area from Point Conception up to Morro Bay,” Lowe said. “While we would love to work there, there is just no money. It’s been very frustrating.”

Lowe said he ran out of shark tags in July of last year after a record number of sightings.

“If it is approved, it would be a huge deal because to my knowledge that has never happened before,” Lowe said of the state-funded shark research.

For the past 10 years, Lowe and his team have relied on funding from private donors and the Monterey Bay Aquarium to get by. He's been one of the leaders of shark research in California and has developed technology like drones, underwater cameras and “Fitbits for sharks” to track movements and behavior and buoy technology that would give lifeguards information that a shark was nearby.

Dr. Chris Lowe is a professor in marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach, where he and his students work with acoustic and satellite telemetry techniques to study sharks, rays and gamefishes. Courtesy California State University, Long Beach

If approved, Lowe wants use the money to enlist researchers at Cal Poly to help tag white sharks in the waters off SLO County. There hasn't been much direct shark research done in the area, though local scientists have an idea that shark populations are increasing due to increased otter deaths. Dr. Benjamin Ruttenberg, director of the Center for Coastal Marine Sciences at Cal Poly, would welcome the chance to contribute to white shark research.

“It would really benefit the program,” Ruttenberg said. “It would help us better understand sharks, which are obviously really important on the Central Coast.”

While Cal Poly tends to focus much of its research on climate change, renewable energy and local fisheries, Ruttenberg agreed with Lowe's assessment that the Cal Poly Pier would be the perfect place to deploy one of his real-time acoustic receivers used to track the movement of tagged white sharks.

“Then we can begin to answer questions about how much time do they spend at those beaches and do they migrate to Southern California or do they go to Monterey,” Lowe said.

Ultimately, Lowe said, being able to answer these questions will help keep the public safe and minimize dangerous interactions with sharks.

The West Coast experienced nine great white shark attacks on humans in 2017, nearly doubling the five attacks recorded in 2016, according to a Shark Research Committee report. A woman nearly died after she was attacked by a shark at San Onofre last April.

Still, shark attacks remain rare when compared to the millions of people who use the ocean every year. According to a Stanford University study from 2015, California surfers have a 1-in-17-million chance of being bitten.

“For me, it’s really exciting because I never thought I would see the day when white sharks would come back like this. But at the same time, I understand it’s disconcerting for surfers and lifeguards and people who use the water all the time,” Lowe said. “When they ask what is going on with all the sharks, we say we don’t really know, but we have all the tools to give you those answers; we just need the money to do it.”

Brown is expected to approve the budget by July 1.

“We are crossing our fingers and hoping it makes it all the way through,” Lowe said of the funding. “If it does, we are ready to scale up right away. It would be exciting if it happens.”