White sharks are highly migratory and segregate by sex, age and size. Unlike marine mammals, they neither surface to breathe nor frequent haul-out sites, hindering generation of abundance data required to estimate population size. A recent tag-recapture study used photographic identifications of white sharks at two aggregation sites to estimate abundance in “central California” at 219 mature and sub-adult individuals. They concluded this represented approximately one-half of the total abundance of mature and sub-adult sharks in the entire eastern North Pacific Ocean (ENP). This low estimate generated great concern within the conservation community, prompting petitions for governmental endangered species designations.
A group of biologists now critically examined that study and found violations of model assumptions that, when considered in total, lead to population underestimates. They also used a Bayesian mixture model to demonstrate that the inclusion of transient sharks, characteristic of white shark aggregation sites, would substantially increase abundance estimates for the adults and sub-adults in the surveyed sub-population. Using a dataset obtained from the same sampling locations and widely accepted demographic methodology, their analysis indicated a minimum all-life stages population size of >2000 individuals in the California subpopulation is required to account for the number and size range of individual sharks observed at the two sampled sites. Even accounting for methodological and conceptual biases, an extrapolation of these data to estimate the white shark population size throughout the ENP seemed to be inappropriate.
In summary, the true ENP white shark population size is likely several-fold greater as the original published estimate excluded non-aggregating sharks and those that independently aggregate at other important ENP sites. Accurately estimating the central California and ENP white shark population size requires methodologies that account for biases introduced by sampling a limited number of sites and that account for all life history stages across the species' range of habitats.