Young White Sharks Heading North as Climate Heats Up

A new study reports that the great white shark is migrating to new waters off the coast of California because of changing ocean temperatures.

(AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam, File)

(CN) — The great white shark — one of the ocean’s most feared hunters — is known for having virtually no natural predators within the depths of the ocean, but new research suggests this king of the ocean may be bowing to climate change. 

Great white sharks have long been viewed as some of the most impressive creatures to roam the oceans and it is easy to see why. Capable of living human-length lives and growing into some of the largest fish species known to man, these underwater predators possess the speed and the strength to make them the dominant hunters in their ecosystems, rivalled only by certain species of killer whales.

But white sharks also face several challenges to their survival as a species. Commercial fishing activities and man-made disruptions of their habitat have been reported as being significant threats to their population, with many international conservation organizations and governments around the world designating them as vulnerable, protected creatures.

These great predators are also not immune to the effects of climate change.

In a study published Tuesday in Scientific Reports, research led by California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium reveals rising ocean temperatures are forcing juvenile sharks to travel to new waters in an attempt to find more suitable habitats.

Researchers observed an unusually high volume of juvenile white shark sightings in the more northern end of Monterey Bay — an area that does not typically see many young white shark sightings. Experts say these sightings are a direct result of rising ocean temperatures in the waters the sharks usually call home, leading them to search for new waters in the north that may be closer to their ideal thermal habitats.

Chris Lowe, a co-author of the study and director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach, said that these results were not only tragically expected by a number of experts, but are also results that are likely to be seen again from observations of other marine species.

“After studying juvenile white shark behavior and movements in Southern California for the last 16 years, it is very interesting to see this northerly shift in nursery habitat use,” Lowe said in a statement. “I think this is what many biologists have expected to see as the result of climate change and rising ocean temperatures. Frankly, I’ll be surprised if we don’t see this northerly shift across more species.”

Experts say this is not the first time this phenomenon has been reported. Several years ago, a massive marine heatwave struck the California coast between 2014 and 2016 and researchers observed that the increase in temperatures was causing more young white sharks to swim near the shore.

Since the heatwave hit, the study reports that the problem has worsened. Experts have recorded higher temperature extremes in the waters white sharks populate and an exhaustive analysis of around 22 million electronic data records reveal that white sharks are traveling further and further north in the hopes that they find cooler, more hospitable waters.

Researchers stress that these results further illustrate what data has been telling the world for years: Climate change is real, and its consequences can already be seen. 

“Nature has many ways to tell us the status quo is being disrupted, but it’s up to us to listen,” said Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, Monterey Bay Aquarium chief scientist. “These sharks — by venturing into territory where they have not historically been found — are telling us how the ocean is being affected by climate change.”

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