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It's Shark Week—Time to Learn About the Bay's Sharks

Adam L. Brinklow | August 11, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

It's Shark Week, the happiest seven day period this side of the first 7/8ths of Hannukkah. Save the Bay is taking advantage of the publicity provided by the Discovery Channel's annual block of shark-related programming to draw attention to the welfare of our friendly local sharks, in this case by dressing an intern up in a shark onesie and taking her out to talk to kids. (We do the same thing on Casual Fridays around here.) "It's silly," admits STB spokeswoman Vanessa Barrington, "but it gets people's attention."

Okay—you got our attention. Tell us about the sharks.

Sharks are the Darwinian prime movers in the bay, grazing on smaller critters so as to keep their populations from exploding. Ever hardworking, they do the thankless work of maintaining a careful aquatic balance. The bay is a crucial habitat for sharks, which thrive in salty wetlands with warm waters. "Sharks need the bay and the bay needs sharks," says STB staff scientist Hayley Zemel, who spent six years tagging wild great whites for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Unfortunately, funds for shark research and conservation are hard to come by, to the point that we don't even really know their relative population. Sharks have a PR problem, but most bay sharks are bottom-feeders content to scarf down clams, shrimp, and crabs. (Pitch for the next Food issue: "Eat Like a Shark.")

Six shark species call the bay home, each sporting an awesome name like the brown smoothhound shark, grey smoothhound shark, spiny dogfish, Pacific angel shark, leopard shark, and the broadnose sevengill shark. The broadnose sevengill is the largest, averaging about eight feet, and its diet consists mostly of other sharks. Thanks to overfishing, sevengills are now found only here and in Humboldt Bay.

Weighing in at the smallest end of the spectrum is the spiny dogfish, a 2-3 foot bottom-feeder with poisonous spines on its fins to ward off predators (usually bigger sharks). The sting isn't potent enough to be fatal, but Zemel characterizes it as "unbearable." Like most sharks, dogfish have no interest in menacing humans—but even so, don't hug them. Dogfish have the dubious distinction of enduring the longest pregnancy cycle of any shark: two years to produce six pups. (Most bay sharks give birth to live young.) Actually, every shark's biological clock ticks pretty loud; long gestations are a big contributor to their threatened conservation status. The warm bay waters may quicken their reproductive cycles.

STB's communications intern Rochelle Reuter suited up in a shark onesie and tagged along with Zemel today for a foray into the city to help spread some shark love, attracting curious preschoolers at the Ferry Building. "The kids were pretty responsive," she says, though she admits one or two of the youngest ones were scared. Last week she paddled a kayak across Lake Merritt in the same getup.

"I think sharks are charismatic and sexy, but for most people it's tough to love a predator," Zemel admits. But love them we should. Bay Area sharks aren't that different from Bay Area humans: They live about 70 years, have a taste for local shellfish, love the bay, and are thinking a lot lately about settling down and raising a family.

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