Saturday, December 01, 2007

Shark sightings rules are changing in Avila Beach

Attacks, not mere sightings, will close the waters, which will stay off-limits for three days, not five; new policy addresses business owners’ concerns.

Waters around Port San Luis and Avila Beach will now only be closed to swimmers after someone is attacked by a shark or other marine animal.

And such a closure would last for just three days under a significant revision to the shark incident policy approved by Port San Luis Harbor District commissioners Tuesday.

Under the old rules, waters have been closed for five days after credible sightings of great white sharks within a mile of the harbor.

Now, a shark sighting that’s ruled credible would result in public advisories being posted for three days.

“We want to find a balance,” said Casey Nielsen, the district’s operations manager. “We want to alert and educate the public.”

The commission adopted a shark policy after Deborah Franzman of Nipomo was killed by a great white while she was swimming off Avila Beach on Aug. 19, 2003.

The commission voted unanimously to make the change, in part at the behest of Avila Beach business owners who said frequent closures during the busy summer months were hurting business.

B.J. Johnson, owner of B.J. Enterprises, a seafood business in Port San Luis, noted that several of the water closures over the summer came before busy holiday weekends.

“I think the current policy has been very detrimental to businesses,” he said. “This is a big step forward.”

Michael Kidd, an Avila Beach hotelier, agreed that the closures hurt business, particularly when the news got picked up in Fresno and other places where many tourists come from.

He gets cancellations after customers hear about shark sightings. He only wanted public notification in the case of an actual attack.

Commissioner Carolyn Moffatt said the policy of notifying swimmers after a credible shark sighting strikes the right balance.

“It is our responsibility to alert the public to make informed decisions,” she said.

Harbor officials stress that when closures occur, it is only for the water. “The beach is never closed,” Nielsen said. “It just applies to body contact and deep water use.”

The main beach at Avila Beach is posted with signs advising the public that a confirmed death by shark attack occurred there.

According to the International Shark Attack File—a project at the Florida Museum of Natural History that tracks shark attack statistics — the odds of being attacked by a shark are 1 in 11.5 million, and the likelihood of being killed is less than 1 in 264.1 million.


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