Malibu residents don't like the shark pen

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Posted by on July 06, 2005 at 20:07:31:

Debate ensues over shark letter

The City Council instructed staff last week to send a letter to Monterey Bay Aquarium asking it to relocate a shark holding pen away from Malibu's coast. The mayor pro tem, opposed to relocation of the pen, says the council did not make that request.

Malibu's mayor pro tem and city staff appeared to be in conflict this week over whether the council actually requested a letter be sent to a Central California aquarium asking it to relocate a 4-million-gallon floating shark-holding pen away from Malibu's coastline.

City Manager Katie Lichtig said in a phone interview last week that "the council instructed us to communicate the city's desire for the program to be in a less-populated area," a request confirmed in the city's action agenda. Malibu's city limit extends three miles offshore.

However, Mayor Pro Tem Ken Kearsley, in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, was adamant that this did not take place.

"[The council] did not request that the holding pen be relocated," Kearsley said. "The action agenda is wrong."

"I would vehemently oppose a letter requesting relocation," he added.

Kearsley said that the council did ask to clarify a few issues, but did not take action on the matter.

However, Lichtig, in a follow-up interview Tuesday, said there "was a consensus to send a letter."

The Malibu Times received a facsimile of the letter late Tuesday afternoon, which was signed by Mayor Andy Stern.

The letter, addressed to Randy Hamilton, vice president of husbandry at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, states, " ... concerns were raised regarding the safety of maintaining the shark pen the Malibu Bay Aquarium has placed off the shore of Malibu at Point Dume ..."

The letter goes on to state that while the city appreciates the benefits of the aquarium's White Shark Research Project, "our first priority must always be the safety and well-being of our residents and the thousands of visitors we welcome each year. Therefore, the City of Malibu recommends that a more appropriate offshore location in a less populated area should be utilized for the white shark pen."

Again, Kearsley was insistent that the council did not request such a letter.

"That's not the way I recall it," he said. "We didn't pass any action, we did not have any vote on it."

Kearsley confirmed this later Tuesday after he watched the tape from the June 27 council meeting and said what happened is Councilmember Sharon Barovsky had suggested a letter be sent inquiring as to whether the sharks that are released, could be released further off the coast from Malibu.

Barovksy, who also watched the tape, confirmed this account.

"Mistakes happened, [especially] when it's late," Barovksy said of how the intent of the request could have been misunderstood.

The request came at the behest of Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich, who brought the issue up during the public comment portion of the June 27 council meeting.

Ulich said in a phone interview Tuesday that a concerned resident e-mailed her a link to the Web site www.sharkresearchcommittee.com, which detailed what happens to sharks that go into the pen and then are later released. Conley Ulich said that the Web site stated that if the sharks don't eat, they are released into local waters.

"So we have hungry sharks being released into our waters," Conley Ulich said.

Asked if she was concerned that a released shark could attack humans in local waters, she said, "Yes."

When told of what Kearsley and Barovsky said regarding the letter, Conley Ulich said, "In my mind, it was a request to move it [the pen]."

But she admitted that the council members could be right in their assertion.

Mayor Stern said he was concerned about the issue as well, citing the recent shark attacks off the coast in Florida.

"Will we be safer without it [the pen]?," Stern asked rhetorically. "Probably."

"The humanity of it is a concern as well," he added, referring to the recent death of a juvenile female great white shark, which died after it was transferred from a holding pen in San Pedro to the pen in Malibu.

In response to the concerns posed by Conley Ulich and others, Ken Peterson, public relations manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said he appreciates the council members' concerns and would be happy to answer any questions the city might have.

"[If I were] a council member and didn't know a great deal about sharks, I would want to ask those questions," Peterson said in a phone interview Tuesday. "That's a very reasonable thing to do."

He said he has received no communication from the city except a phone call asking where and to whom a letter should be sent.

Peterson said that since the inception of the aquarium's research four years ago, a total of three sharks have been put into the pen. One, in 2003, was held for five days. It was not feeding so it was tagged and released from the site of the pen. Satellite data showed that the shark ended up traveling to Redondo Beach. The second shark was successfully sent to the aquarium after being held in the Malibu pen, and after six months, it was released off Monterey Bay. Within 30 days, tagged data showed it traveled to Point Conception in Santa Barbara. The third shark was the one that recently died.

Peterson said the protocol for shark release is after a period of time, if scientists didn't see signs of an animal swimming well, or feeding well, it is then tagged and released from the pen.

Peterson said in conversations with lifeguards, they have affirmed that for the decades they've been working in Malibu, they have regularly seen great whites along the coast.

"They'll be there, whether we have a pen or not," Peterson said.

As to where they are spending their time and where they move to and why, it's a mystery, Peterson said. "That's part of the research," he said. "To learn what they're doing."

Peterson did say that scientists do know that at the juvenile stage in life, the great whites are not feeding on marine mammals, therefore not confusing humans with their prey. Also, based on data from the sharks tagged, their range varies widely and they travel quickly, sometimes more than 100 miles offshore.

"They're not territorial, they range a lot from wherever they happen to be," he said.

It is the aquarium's opinion, which is backed by science, Peterson said, that the operation of the pen would not pose a threat to people.

"If [we] thought there were a threat," he said, "that is not something we would be doing for ethical reasons, putting people in danger."

As to why Kearsley is opposed to relocating the pen, he cited the importance of scientific study.

"It's a scientific study," he said. "Sharks are part of the environment. They have always been here, and always will be."

Kearsley said he is an avid surfer and goes in the water everyday.

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