SALINAS, Calif. A great white shark that survived longer than any other in captivity was returned to the wild early Thursday because it was growing too large and beginning to prey on other fish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The shark, captured by a commercial halibut fisherman off the coast of Orange County on Aug. 20, was in captivity for 198 days; despite a half century of attempts, the previous captivity record was 16 days. It also was the first great white to regularly eat outside the wild, putting on 100 pounds while at the aquarium.
''The larger she grew, the more that human safety and animal welfare concerns became a factor in our thinking,'' said Randy Hamilton, vice president of husbandry for the aquarium. ''It's more risky to handle a larger animal.''
The predator also had killed two soupfin sharks earlier this year, although at the time aquarium officials weren't sure whether she was hunting. After close observation this week, researchers noticed she was starting to exhibit true hunting behavior.
''We've been watching to see if she was actively hunting other animals in the exhibit,'' Hamilton said. ''When we saw clear signs on Monday, we decided an immediate release would be best.''
Aquarium staff released the shark shortly before sunrise Thursday in Pacific waters south of Monterey Bay. Her movement will be tracked for 30 days with an electronic tag that was attached before her release.
Immediately after its capture, the shark was held in a 4 million-gallon ocean pen off the Southern California coast for three weeks. It was transferred to the aquarium in mid-September.
During her stay in Monterey, she had grown from a length of 5 feet and a weight of 62 pounds to 6 feet 4 inches and 162 pounds. Scientists estimate the shark is about a year-and-a-half old.
Her growth was among one of the biggest surprises for scientists, said Randy Kochevar, a marine biologist at the aquarium. Researchers, who weren't able to weigh and measure the shark until just before her release, had guessed she weighed about 100 pounds.
The aquarium also acquired a wealth of information on how best to care for the animals in captivity.
''A lot of what we learned is just all the ins and outs of taking care of this animal. Nobody had done that before,'' Kochevar said. ''What's the best way to feed her on display? What are the best ways to handle her? That's all new information we'll use as we move forward.''
The aquarium, which opened in 1984 on the site of an abandoned fish cannery, saw attendance jump 30 percent after the shark arrived Sept. 15. On Thursday, officials told visitors about the release before they paid admission, and signs explaining the reasons were placed near the exhibit. Disappointed visitors also were offered refunds, Kochevar said.
''There are still 75 or so other animals if you don't count thousands of sardines swimming around in a school on that display,'' he said. ''Although her absence is certainly noted because she was such a spectacular animal, it's not like there's an empty exhibit now.''
Mark Berman, assistant director of the International Marine Mammal Project at the Earth Island Institute, applauded the release. The San Francisco group is leading efforts against keeping dolphins, orcas and other advanced sea life in captivity.
''In the future, we think the Monterey Bay Aquarium and others should work on protecting these species in the wild,'' he said. ''I'm sure they now have valuable footage and data they can utilize without having to bring another (shark) in.''
But the aquarium said it will try to find another young great white shark for the exhibit later this year. It also is expanding other research that involves tagging and tracking the animals.
''We've just been given approval by our board to take some of the revenue that we generated by having the shark here and placed an additional $500,000 into a white shark research and conservation program,'' Kochevar said.
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