Steve Robles speaks before the Manhattan Beach City Council on Tuesday. Photos by Esther Kang
Steve Robles stood spritely before the Manhattan Beach City Council Tuesday night, his buttoned white-and-blue checkered shirt hiding the lacerations from a nearly fatal shark bite earlier this month by the Manhattan Beach pier.
The 50-year-old long distance swimmer shared that he had closely encountered a shark once before, just this past August during his 13-hour fundraiser swim from Catalina Island to Rancho Palos Verdes. He saw the shark swimming about 12 feet below him.
“It just kept going,” Robles recounted. “It did startle me, but nothing happened.”
The problem, he offered, is not sharks, but the fishermen who tamper with their livelihoods.
Tuesday night inside the overflowing council chambers marked the first public dialogue between city officials and the community about the July 5 incident, in which a distressed juvenile great white, struggling to free itself from a fishing line, bit Robles. After eight hours in the emergency room, Robles survived the attack with bloodied gashes along his torso.
The incident, believed to be the first of its kind in Los Angeles County, has ignited a heated debate about recreational fishing on the Manhattan Beach pier, where great white juveniles are often sighted, and the safety hazards posed to swimmers and surfers. The angler, since identified as Jason Hagemann, had hooked the shark about 45 minutes before the attack.
Lifeguards kept the Manhattan Beach pier and neighboring beaches closed while a search for the shark was conducted. Photo by Kevin Cody
Despite witness accounts claiming that Hagemann was “chumming” for sharks — throwing fish guts into the water to attract them — he vehemently denied that he had been shark fishing, which would have been illegal as great white sharks are protected under state and federal law. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced last week that he will not be cited.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to this issue,” Robles told the Manhattan Beach City Council Tuesday. “Most importantly I think reckless behavior has to be penalized. … There’s something that has to be done.”
Robles was hardly alone in his concern. Some 30 locals took to the podium Tuesday, many urging stricter fishing regulations or a ban altogether, while others decried the “hysteria” surrounding the attack and urged the Council to make a rational ruling.
On Tuesday, the Council voted unanimously to declare an emergency and nuisance, officially extending the fishing ban on the pier for up to 60 days. During the ban, the city will continue consulting with the State Coastal Commission, the State Department of Parks and Recreation, county lifeguards and other agencies to explore regulation changes that would better ensure public safety, City Manager Mark Danaj said.
Under the Council’s direction, the Manhattan Beach Police Department will begin gathering evidence against Hagemann to present to the District Attorney’s Office. If prosecution is not viable, the city could issue an injunction so he can never return to fish at the pier again, Councilman Mark Burton said.
City staff will return with their recommendations at the Aug. 12 meeting, Danaj said.
“Please permanently ban fishing if it can’t be better regulated,” said Susie Miller, a swimmer and mother of two. [(The attack] could have been prevented in my opinion. The community deserves to feel safe in the water.”
Some 30 community members stand in line to speak before the Council about pier fishing
Torrance resident Rick Fuentes said if fishing is banned entirely from the pier, fishermen like himself would flock elsewhere along the surf line. That would not solve the issue at hand, he said.
“To ban every fisherman from the pier is pretty ridiculous,” Fuentes said. “ … It’s more about responsibility. It’s about keeping an eye on why they’re fishing for and how they’re doing it.”
According to City Attorney Quinn Barrow, the city council does not have authority to enact a permanent ban under the California Constitution, which states the public’s right to fish. It would require a constitutional amendment by the state assembly before going to voters.
Others urged the council to reinforce best practices for recreational fishing by ban certain types of fishing gear, including larger steel hooks used for sharks, and enforce the regulations stringently.
“It should be looked at as an educational opportunity for the city,” said Teresa Lang, a Manhattan Beach resident.