Shark monitoring system pings lifeguards in California. But lack of money could put an end to the program

Researchers from the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach have found that sharks and humans swim together at some California beaches more often than previously thought.
(Carlos Gauna/Cal State Long Beach)

Shark monitoring system pings lifeguards in California. But lack of money could put an end to the program

California Politics

Hannah Wiley

March 29, 2024

Here’s something California beachgoers might not know: When great white sharks come within about 300 feet of certain state beaches, lifeguards get a text alert.

A Cal State Long Beach program developed this unique system about six years ago, and hundreds of juvenile white sharks have done so as well


are tagged for monitoring.

But the program is in danger of being shut down as state funding runs out.

The Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach initially received $3.75 million in state funding in 2018 to create the program, which tracks juvenile white sharks along the California coastline. Researchers hoped the monitoring would increase safety on beaches and help the wider public understand its impacts. sea ​​animals better.

Drones show that California’s great white sharks are closer and more common than you think

The money has helped researchers tag 300 young sharks, about 235 of which are still actively monitored, and send data on their whereabouts and habits back to lifeguards at beaches stretching from Morro Bay to the Mexican border, it says. Chris Lowe, professor of marine biology and director of the Sharklab.

The team initially tracked the sharks using 120 underwater acoustic receivers about 100 meters from the beach. Divers collected data from the receivers about once a month and sent it back to the lifeguards. At that point, the information was mostly outdated.

Over the years, the program has added tracking buoys to the water, “which give lifeguards real-time data,” Lowe said.

“So now, when a tagged shark swims past one of these buoys… it sends the lifeguards a text message alert,” Lowe said. “And then they can click on that text message alert, it takes them to a website and then they can learn all about that shark. How big is it, where has it been, what beaches has it visited, how long has it been there ? their beach?”

The technology serves not so much as an “early warning system” but as a scientific tool to help lifeguards “better manage the beaches,” Lowe added.

The funding was intended to keep the research team working for five years, Lowe said, but could extend the money for an additional year. The team of 15 people, including paid students, operates on a budget of approximately $1 million per year.

Lowe said he had spoken with state lawmakers about setting aside more money to continue the program in coming years. But the state’s bleak budget outlook has halted additional spending amid a projected deficit of at least $38 billion.

Democratic Long Beach state Sen. Lena Gonzalez’s office said she was aware that Cal State campuses are facing funding challenges this year, and that the Shark Lab’s alert system “also appears to be facing financial shortcomings. ”

Gonzalez’s office did not say whether the senator would push for funding for the lab in the budget. Assemblymember Josh Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Without another injection of $7 million to continue the program, Lowe worries that scientific progress could stagnate. He said for the program to survive, the lab must find private or foundation funding until the state budget recovers.

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The tracking has helped strengthen drone research showing how often surfers and other beachgoers share the water with sharks, usually without incident. That, in turn, has helped dispel the misconception that sharks are always inherently dangerous and that beaches should be closed when they are around.

Lowe said the data collection process has helped save coastal communities millions of dollars annually because beaches are more likely to remain open even after lifeguards receive warnings about sharks in the water. Researchers are also beginning to understand why sharks flock to certain beaches, and what their food supply says about the marine ecosystem as a whole.

“That information is valuable not only to lifeguards, but also to the public,” Lowe said. “Because they’re starting to better understand what the sharks are doing there and why they’re not as big of a risk as we once thought.”

Meanwhile, the research effort has become a major attraction and recruitment plug for prospective students looking to study marine biology at Cal State Long Beach.

New funding would help the team tag more sharks and upgrade some transmitters, Lowe said, while educating the public about marine conservation and shark habits.

“If shark incidents do happen, and they will continue to happen, shark bites will still happen, then people will understand the rarity of these circumstances,” he said. “If we can’t do these types of programs in California, I don’t know where we could do it.”


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