PETA says anglers off Santa Monica and Venice piers could draw the predators into swimmers’ paths

By Gary Walker

The Marina del Rey breakwater would be one of only a few legal places to fish if PETA succeeds in its ban

The Marina del Rey breakwater would be one of only a few legal places to fish if PETA succeeds in its ban

In the wake of a shark attack on a swimmer near the Manhattan Beach Pier, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has launched a campaign to ban fishing on the Santa Monica Pier, Venice Pier and other structures along the Southern California coast.

The 48-year-old victim of the Independence Day weekend attack suffered several bites from a great white after a fisherman had hooked the shark and held it on the line for nearly 40 minutes, inadvertently guiding the predator into the man’s path.

“Fishing and shark attacks go hand in hand. In many cases, like the incident in Manhattan Beach, anglers are literally luring sharks into the water where they come into contact with swimmers and surfers,” said Alicia Woempner, a special projects manager for PETA.

The Manhattan Beach City Council enacted a 30-day ban on fishing off its pier on July 8 and voted on July 15 to extend the ban to 60 days.

On July 10, PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman sent a letter to Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor urging city council members to enact a ban on the Santa Monica Pier.

“As this incident demonstrates, fishing in a populated area increases the risk that sharks will bite humans, whom they are otherwise uninterested in as prey.  I hope that — in light of the dangers that angling poses to public safety and wildlife — you’ll enact a permanent ban on pier fishing in Santa Monica,” Reiman wrote.

Woempner said PETA members have also lobbied L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti for a ban on the Venice Pier. Although bridges, such as the one over the mouth of Ballona Creek in Playa del Rey, aren’t formally part of PETA’s campaign, the organization would support bridge-related fishing restrictions as well, she said.

Santa Monica nonprofit environmental group Heal the Bay opposes PETA’s calls to ban fishing, however, as limiting human access to the very waters the group was formed to protect.

“We understand that the Manhattan Beach City Council wants something to be done to address the conflicts between marine life and humans, but municipal piers are one of the few places in Southern California where anyone can fish without a license,” said Sarah Sikich, Heal the Bay’s policy director for coastal resources.

Instead of prohibiting waterfront fishing, Heal the Bay recommends that local governments create a pier and angler program that would educate those who fish about marine life and local sharks, including how to avoid catching them or how to release them if caught.

Heal the Bay currently operates such a program, in which volunteers visit different local piers and also educate people on how to avoid eating potentially contaminated fish.

Santa Monica Pier Administrator Rod Merle said city authorities plan to follow Heal the Bay’s example and take an “educational approach” to pier fishing, which he said has been happening in Santa Monica for a century.

“It’s a recreational activity, and for some people it’s a source of food,” Merle said. “We’re looking for a balanced approach to sustainable, safe and respectful fishing practices.”

Manhattan Beach Mayor Amy Howorth said she isn’t sure whether her city’s ban on fishing would remain in place for long because of concerns about limiting coastal access. Preserving coastal access is a primary mission of the California Coastal Commission, a state oversight body that regulates recreation and development near the ocean.

“We cannot put a permanent ban on fishing on our pier,” Howorth said. “One thing that we’ve been working on is adding provisions to our municipal code that would encourage fishermen to fish for smaller, safer fish, and how to keep swimmers safe while people are fishing.”

Howorth said she has been working with the Coastal Commission as well as the state Dept. of Fish and Wildlife to ascertain what her council can legally do to regulate fishing.

Heal the Bay representatives say they understand the need for those who fish from piers to be more responsible, but punishing everyone for the actions of a few is not a reasonable response.

“That’s like banning all cars from the 405 because of a few bad drivers,” Sikich said.

Great white shark sightings in the Santa Monica Bay have increased in recent years, according to scientists, who point to several possible factors including cleaner waters and more available prey.

“The white shark population is increasing. It is not uncommon now to see young sharks along our coasts in the summer months,” Christopher Lowe, a scientist with the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, said during a January shark symposium in Playa del Rey, less than two miles from the Manhattan Beach Pier.

Sikich noted efforts by her organization and others that have helped clean up water pollution in the Santa Monica Bay.

“We’ve noticed that over the last five years many species of marine life have been coming back,” she said. “We’re excited to see that the charismatic and mysterious white shark appears to be one of them.”

PETA leaders are hopeful that, even without a ban, the Manhattan Beach incident will eventually motivate others to voluntarily decide not to fish off piers.

“We hope that people will see this as a wake-up call to protect sharks and other aquatic animals and to not put surfers and swimmers at risk,” Woempner said.