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Great White Shark Populations on the Rise Along East Coast

Jun 20, 2014 05:44 PM EDT

Great White shark populations are on the rise in the western North Atlantic, a new study reports. However, don't let this be a cause for concern. Shark attack rates are as low along the Eastern United States as they have always been.

The study, published in the Journal PLOS One, details what experts are calling one of the most comprehensive shark population studies ever completed.

Conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, researchers tracked shark populations in the field and compared their findings to data collected since conservation efforts to protect Great Whites began in 1997.

According to the study, North Atlantic white shark populations along the east coast of the US and Canada have climbed to about 2000 - a very healthy number.

This is great news for conversationalists worried about the apex predator, as past studies have shown declining populations and a worrying absence of spottings in both Atlantic and Pacific waters.

They were "worried for a good reason," claims James Sulikowski, an expert of marine science from the University of New England, who talked about the study with the Associated Press. As a top predator in most waters, these sharks are an ideal reflection of the rest of the ocean's health, he explained.

According to the study, Great white populations have still declined since their peak in abundance in the 1960s and 1980s. Current populations are estimated to be only about 69 percent of that peak population - which is still higher than estimated several years ago.

"The species appears to be recovering,," concludes Cami McCandless, one of the authors of the study. She believes that this recovery has a lot to do with conservation efforts taken by officials and enthusiasts alike.

Still, not everyone agrees that the large predators were ever as threatened as some claim. White sharks are noxiously difficult to track, as they don't surface for air. What's worse, solo-swimming sharks break migration patterns all the time, making it very difficult to measure their numbers.

Only a year ago the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied public requests to make Great Whites an endangered species after several studies reported alarming low population numbers in the Eastern North Pacific.

However, another PLOS One  study has revealed that the NMFS may have been right in their decision, showing that the sharks number "well over 2000" and may have simply been difficult to track in previous years.

"Listing species that are not under the threat of biological extinction diverts resources away from species genuinely at risk," the Pacific study's author said. "We want to use our resources for the neediest species."

The Atlantic study was published in PLOS One on June 11.

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