Q&A: Chris Lowe, of CSU Long Beach’s Shark Lab, discusses local shark activity

Lowe's research into local shark populations includes underwater acoustic receivers that are placed off Del Mar.

In response to shark activity reported by local surfers, the Del Mar City Council heard a presentation from Chris Lowe, a professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, during its May 3 meeting.

In a Q&A with the Del Mar Times, Lowe elaborated on the research he’s working on, observations about sharks along the Southern California coast and tips for beachgoers if they encounter a shark in the water.

Responses were lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

Q. What is driving the increase in shark sightings?

Lowe: We think that the population’s been increasing since it’s been protected in California since 1994. So that increase is because they’re not being caught in commercial fisheries anymore, because it’s illegal. And then the other part is the marine mammal population has recovered, so the adult food sources come back. It’s taken about 20 to 25 years for that to happen, but we’re starting to see what we think is population recovery.

Q: During the City Council meeting, you mentioned the effects that a shark bite can have on a community? What exactly happens to a local beach-going population in the aftermath of a shark bite?

Lowe: We’re doing an economic study right now to try to investigate that, because we can’t put good numbers to it. What we do have is some anecdotal data that suggests after a person has been bitten in a location and it makes the news, that can result in economic impacts to those communities. We’re doing a study right now to quantify exactly how big those impacts can be, and then what can we do to help reduce that? Shark bites will continue to happen as long as people go in the ocean but they’re very rare. So are there things we can do to reduce the effects of that? Right now, we think a lot of that has to do with education.

Q. Do people have a lot of misconceptions about sharks? Do movies like “Jaws” continue to influence public perception?

Lowe: That’s another study that we’re doing right now. We’re doing a study where we’re trying to understand people’s perceptions — not just sharks, but marine wildlife in general, like stingrays and marine mammals and all those sorts of things so we can better understand what proportion of the population is afraid. Is it people who don’t go in the water every day? Do people who go in the water every day still hold those beliefs? So we actually don’t know. We suspect that a lot of it is propagated by bad media. But in order to understand how pervasive that mindset is, that’s why we’re doing the study.

Lowe and his team have been tagging sharks to track their movement.

Q: What are some tips for people to keep in mind if they’re in the water and encounter a shark?

Lowe: In places like Del Mar, that’s very likely. Staying in a group is always the safest place to be. The statistical evidence is the probability you’ll be bitten is way down if you’re in a group. In addition, there’s always somebody there to help you if you do get in trouble. Try to avoid murky spots. We know those are places where accidents can happen. A shark can mistake a foot for a fish or something like that. And then if you see a shark, always keep your eyes on the shark. So if you’re on your surfboard and you see a shark, just point your board toward the shark. Let the shark know you see it. We’re in the middle of another study where we’re using drone footage to look at how sharks respond to surfers, stand-up paddle boarders, swimmers, and then to see if they respond to any of those different water users differently and then we might be able to give more specific advice.

Q: What are some of the long-term goals of your research?

Lowe: Right now it looks like conservation is working. Many of the marine predators — not just sharks, but seals and sea lions and whales — many of those populations are coming back because we put protection in place for them decades ago and it seems like it’s working. In addition, we need those predators because they help regulate things like stingrays, which hurt more people in California than any of those predators do. So I think that part is exciting. What I worry about, is as numbers go up, people are going to interact with sharks more often. And what we don’t want is people going out chasing them, because then you can change their behavior in a way that may put people at greater danger. Because right now, there doesn’t seem to be a threat, but if we do things that change that, then somebody could get injured. So I think the goal is we know that people will occasionally be bitten when they go in the water. Can we mitigate the effects of that by learning more about shark behavior? And the other part is to educate the public so they better understand sharks, so they can make better decisions when they go in the water.

Q. Is climate change a big factor in understanding sharks and where they appear?

Lowe: It is. We just published a study on that. As the oceans get warmer, we’re starting to see sharks show up in places where they didn’t show up before. That is a concern, because we don’t know whether they would be able to survive in those places. There has to be adequate food resources, or they might end up competing with something that was normally living there. We’ve documented that in white sharks in California already. But we don’t know about many other species. So it’s possible that other species of sharks may start showing up in places that we didn’t expect to see them before.