Manhattan Beach, Sharks, Swimmers — Redux

Given the Santa Monica Bay Pier Summit that was held on May 7 in Los Angeles, it may be time to look back at the article I wrote last fall for the Fish Taco Chronicles magazine.

Manhattan Beach, Sharks, Swimmers — and More

 Ken Jones — Fish Taco Chronicles — Fall 2014

Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

Where do you start? That’s the first question when discussing the recent situation at the Manhattan Beach Pier. The facts are fairly simple: Over the Fourth of July weekend a swimmer was bitten by a great white. The fish happened to be hooked to a line of an angler fishing from the Manhattan Beach Pier. As soon as the swimmer was rescued, and the shark released, the clamor commenced.

Rumors and wild charges filled the pages of newspapers and the Internet (especially those that claimed that the anglers were specifically targeting the area’s great whites, an illegal to keep species, and that they were chumming for the sharks). The situation was not improved when a YouTube film was posted that showed anglers apparently laughing when the swimmer was hooked. In response to the controversy, Manhattan Beach authorities declared a two-month closure on fishing from the pier to study the issue.

PETA, as usual, issued an anti-fishing, knee-jerk rant calling on “all California cities to permanently ban fishing from their piers.” Later the group would call for a ban on piers in Santa Monica Bay and would fly a banner proclaiming “hookers off the piers” which provoked more jokes about hookers than anglers.

The organization wrote a letter to the city that stated that the attack “demonstrates that fishing in a populated area increases the risk that sharks will bite humans, WHOM THEY ARE OTHERWISE UNINTERESTED IN AS PREY, forcing the hooked sharks to lash out.” “Fishing also attracts sharks by the smell of bait or blood from fish that have already been caught.” According to their logic, “the best way to protect public safety and reduce the risk that another swimmer will be injured or killed by a panicked or confused shark is to ban fishing at the pier permanently.”

A once in a million occurrence, the typical response from a well-funded radical (some would say wacko) environmental organization, unfounded charges, incorrect rumors, charges and opinions offered to the media from people unaware of the facts, and a city council caught in the middle—a toxic mix.

In response to the uproar and publicity the Manhattan Beach City Council decided to ban fishing for two months from the pier while they studied the issue. After consultation with many people and organizations (including United Pier and Shore and Anglers of California, Heal the Bay, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and local shark expert Chris Lowe, a professor at Long Beach State), the city proposed several restrictions on fishing from the pier. The stated intent was to be fair to all users but ultimately most of the blame and suggested restrictions would fall on anglers.

The proposed restrictions:

• No snag lines-2 hooks only

• Monofilament line only, no steel/metal/braided leader lines

• Limit on monofilament line weight to 40 lb. test line weight

• Limit fishing to the end of the Pier (surrounding the Roundhouse)

• No chumming

• No fish cleaning

• Maximum hook size 4/0, or 3” long by 2” wide.

With time came additional input and insight:

After investigation by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, it responded that the angler had not violated state fishing laws and that he was targeting bat rays, not sharks. They stated, “this is a legal activity and consistent with numerous other fishing practices in waters where similar tackle is used to catch a variety of fish species.”

Heal the Bay offered up a plan to work with the city: “In response to the unfortunate white shark-angler-swimmer interaction that occurred recently in Manhattan Beach, Heal the Bay proposes to expand on its existing Angler Outreach Program to educate anglers and pier visitors about local shark ecology and methods to minimize conflict with sensitive wildlife and ocean users. The program would also collect data on fishing use on the pier. Additionally, we propose to establish a stakeholder group in partnership with local municipalities to collectively develop a comprehensive pier management strategy to prevent negative human-wildlife at piers along the Santa Monica Bay. The management recommendations would be informed in part through the data collected in the outreach program.”

The California Coastal Commission also weighed in: “We do not agree that an Emergency Coastal Development Permit to prohibit fishing from the pier for sixty days under Section 30611 is appropriate because, as part of the justification for an emergency it must be shown that there is imminent danger to life or property; the City has not demonstrated that public property or life is in imminent danger… The shark attack on the swimmer is an isolated incident that does not warrant the complete closure of a popular fishing pier for 60 days during the height of summer season. There are alternative measures that do not restrict coastal access that can be implemented, on an interim basis, to address this potential nuisance by reducing the risks to swimmers and surfers from fisherman.” Included in their recommendations was signage regarding local shark populations (including discouraging fishermen from fishing for sharks).

In addition it was brought to the City’s attention by Joe Imbriano (ardent fisherman who has fought these battles in the past) that the Conveyance of Tidelands to the City of Manhattan Beach by the state includes the following (Chapter 1427, Section 1, Part d): “The absolute right to fish in the waters of said harbor, with the right of convenient access to said waters over said lands for the said purpose is hereby reserved to the people of the State of California.” In other words, the city has to allow fishing from the pier.

At the time of this article final decisions had not been made by the City Council but it looked like fishing would be allowed from the pier but that “some” form of restrictions would be imposed. What restrictions and their severity were unknown.

The main points that United Pier and Shore Anglers continued to make to the City Council regarding this situation were the following:

• Fishing has taken place for over a century from Southern California piers and the primary purpose for the construction of most piers was recreational angling.

• The state’s interest in recreational fishing from piers has been both long term and consistent. Piers serve as a low cost venue for family, youth, and tourist recreation. They also serve as a resource for the once-a-year casual angler and the neophyte angler just starting to learn the sport. The large number of young anglers on piers as well as tourist anglers is one reason why a fishing license is not required when fishing from a public pier.  In addition, over 50 piers have received money for construction or reconstruction from the Wildlife Conservation Board, a division of the state Fish and Wildlife Department. As a stipulation of money from the WCB, the city, or whichever entity controls the pier, agrees to keep the pier open for public pier fishing.

• Sharks and rays have been caught from SoCal piers since the 1800s but this has never been considered a problem. This is due to the types of shark species common to Southern California piers, i.e., leopard sharks, thresher sharks, and occasionally a 7-gill shark. None of these are considered dangerous to anglers.

• It is true that great white sharks are increasing in numbers along the coast, several surfers have been bitten, and one individual was killed close to a pier (a lady who chose to swim with the sea lions next to the pier at Avila Beach). She was wearing a wetsuit at the time and it was speculated the great white mistook her for a sea lion and attacked her. A causal relationship between anglers and that shark attack was never suggested. Instead the decision to swim with sea lions, one of the favorite foods for great whites, was seen as the main contributing factor in the attack. In fact, the rise is the number on sea lions and other pinnipeds along California’s coast may be one of the main causes for the increase of great whites.

• Charges have been leveled at Manhattan Beach that the anglers were fishing for a great white shark. After reviewing the YouTube video and other reports (including that of the Department of Fish and Wildlife) it seems clear the charge is unwarranted. It is clear from the rod and reel seen in the YouTube video that the capture of a fish perhaps weighing several hundred pounds would be extremely difficult. The anglers stated they were fishing for bat rays that can be large and fun to catch and that appears most likely.

• The issue of chum for attracting sharks has also been voiced. The anglers said they did not chum for the shark other than the mackerel used for bait and again this seems most reasonable. In fact, a minimal amount of bait goes into the water from anglers at the Manhattan Beach Pier compared to many piers. There are far more numerous anglers at the Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Venice, and Santa Monica piers than at Manhattan Beach and there is much more bait and chum in their waters yet they have not seen appreciable sightings of great whites.

• People fishing for large sharks and rays do not know what they’ve hooked until the fish reaches the surface. According to Fish and Wildlife if an angler sees that the fish is a great white they should then cut the line. Fishermen have long debated this point. Should they cut the line or bring the fish up onto the pier by use of a net, then remove the hooks and return the fish to the water by use of the net. Here the anglers said they were afraid to cut the line since they saw surfers by the shark. It was an unwise decision but based upon past incidents, some reportedly where anglers were instructed to being great whites up onto the pier by pier authorities, it was more an error of judgment than an intentional breaking of the rules. It should be noted that the Fish and Wildlife did not cite these anglers.

• Is there a danger to surfers and swimmers from anglers fishing from piers? Nearly two thirds of all saltwater angling effort in California takes place on piers and the shore with the majority of this taking place on piers. Literally hundreds of thousand of hours are spent pier fishing in California. Yet this, to our knowledge, is the first and only time a swimmer has been bitten by a shark that was on the line of a fisherman. Thus a causal relationship between shark fishing on California piers and swimmers or surfers being bitten by a shark is simply not a reasonable conclusion.

• The number of great whites at Manhattan Beach is surprising and though the numbers are known, and the area is seen as a birthing area for the sharks, the reasons for this are not known. UPSAC believes, and most would agree, that it has no relationship to angling from what is a relatively small pier with a relatively small amount of anglers. If there were truly a fear from the great whites then the most prudent approach would be to ban all swimmers and surfers from the area.

• The larger issue and the one that is most relevant is how the city should serve all the competing interests—anglers, surfers and swimmers. For this UPSAC would suggest Manhattan Beach take a page from those cities that have large piers, and large numbers of surfers, yet have been able to resolve the conflict. The most successful are cities that impose a stay clear zone next to the pier, i.e., one hundred yards no swimming or surfing next to the pier. The prohibition should be painted on the side of the pier so that it is clear to surfers and swimmers, and lifeguards should be told to enforce the rules. Where such rules have been enforced there is generally peace between the competing groups. Lack of such rules and lack of enforcement is generally what leads to conflict. Surfers will object since the piers seem to provide water breaks that surfers prefer but surfers have miles of surf on each side of the pier open to surfing; anglers are restricted to the waters adjacent to a limited number of piers.

Almost entirely overlooked in the discussion on pier fishing are several long-term issues that will not be resolved by simple restrictions on a single city or pier. These are clashes that are occurring throughout California.

• The clash between the “Haves” and the “Have-Nots” in our society. Manhattan Beach is an affluent community ranked by Money Magazine as the fourth most expensive beach town in America. It has the second highest mean income of any Los Angeles neighborhood (right above Beverly Hills) and home prices average $1.8 million. Pier fishermen on the other hand tend to be less affluent. Piers are free and provide low cost alternatives to owning a boat or fishing from a commercial Sportfishing boat. They attract whole families and for (some) people in wealthy seaside communities “these” people are an unwanted mix in their midst.

• The clash between races and ethnic groups. According to the 2000 census, Manhattan Beach was 88.99% White, 6.04% Asian, .61% Black, and minimal numbers of other races.  5.19% was Hispanic or Latino. Most would deny any racism is at play in the equations concerning anglers on the piers but anyone who has fished the piers on a regular basis knows the slurs that often are heard.

• The clash between surfers and anglers. Surfing often involves a  “bullying” nature” that “claims” the waters as its own. It’s seen when locals harass other non-local surfers for water and it’s seen in the conflict over pier waters with anglers. Piers that have restrictions on swimming or surfing within 100 yards of a pier largely avoid the conflict.  Given the glamorization of surfing in southern California, and the wealth and power of the Surfrider Foundation, it’s not hard to see the influence it has over city municipalities and why they are hesitant to enact 100-yard no swimming zones.

• The clash between those who have bought into the anti-fishing message of (some) environmental organizations and those who see the ocean as a living resource that can provide enjoyment for both passive and non-passive users. To some people a shark (or any fish) is a cute creature that is harmless if just left alone. They fail to recognize that all ocean creatures are in a constant battle against not only the ocean elements but against the other ocean creatures: eat or be eaten is the norm. Many people have an unrealistic view of the ocean and that comes into play whenever situations such as this arise.

These are clashes that will continue as society and its views change. Whether fishing is an acceptable recreation will continue to be attacked by some and it’s not clear (as seen in the battles over the Marine Life Protection Act) that angler groups have the funding, the will power, or support to win the battle of the minds of the average citizen.


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