A tracking study of white sharks in the northeastern Pacific Ocean shows they follow a rigid migration route across the sea, returning to precisely the same spot on California coast each time they come back. Over tens of thousands of years, this behavior has made the population in the northeastern Pacific genetically distinct from other white shark populations.

“White sharks are a large, highly mobile species,” said researcher Salvador Jorgensen. “They can go just about anywhere they want in the ocean, so it’s really surprising that their migratory behaviors lead to the formation of isolated populations.”

Scientists with the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) program combined satellite tagging, passive acoustic monitoring and genetic tags to study great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) in the North Pacific. Details of their study are published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The fact that the northeastern Pacific white sharks undergo such a consistent, large-scale migration, and that they are all closely related and distinct from other known white shark populations, suggests that it is possible to conduct long-term population assessment and monitoring of these animals.

Barbara Block, professor of marine sciences at Stanford and a coauthor of the paper, said, “Catastrophic loss of large oceanic predators is occurring across many ecosystems. The white sharks’ predictable movement patterns in the northeastern Pacific provide us with a super opportunity to establish the census numbers and monitor these unique populations. This can help us ensure their protection for future generations.”

The researchers used a combination of satellite and acoustic tags to follow the migrations of 179 individual white sharks between 2000 and 2008. The tags reveal that the sharks spend the majority of their time in three areas of the Pacific: the North American shelf waters of California; the slope and offshore waters around Hawaii; and an area called the “White Shark Cafe,” located in the open ocean approximately halfway between the Baja Peninsula and the Hawaiian Islands.

Genetics techniques were used to examine the relationships of the California sharks to all other white sharks examined globally. Studies of maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA sequences show that the populations are distinct, and suggest that the northeastern Pacific population may have been founded by a relatively small number of sharks in the late Pleistocene – within the last 200,000 years or so. The other populations of white sharks are concentrated near Australia and South Africa.

Depletion of top oceanic predators is a pressing global concern, particularly among sharks because they are slow reproducers. White sharks have been listed for international protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Despite these precautionary listings, trade in white shark products, primarily fins, persists. Information on population and distribution of oceanic sharks is critical for implementing effective management efforts and the absence of such data impedes protection at all scales. Combining electronic tagging and genetic technologies can help protect sharks.

Further Reading:
Salvador J. Jorgensen, Carol A. Reeb, Taylor K. Chapple, Scot Anderson, Christopher Perle, Sean R. Van Sommeran, Callaghan Fritz-Cope, Adam C. Brown, A. Peter Klimley, and Barbara A. Block
Philopatry and migration of Pacific white sharks
Proc R Soc B 2009 : rspb.2009.1155v1-rspb20091155.

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