Summer of the shark: Are more great whites a good thing?

How much should you worry? Not much, say shark experts. In fact, you may want to celebrate. Two new studies point to a rise in great white numbers on both U.S. coasts, after the species' population had been plummeting for decades. And the benefits of a healthy shark population far outweigh the risks.

"Sharks are the lions of the ocean. ... If we lose them, then the ocean falls out of balance. You end up with a dead ocean like the Sea of Cortez," said Chris Fischer, founder, chairman and expedition leader of Ocearch. Since fall 2008, Ocearch, a nonprofit organization, has been on a mission to tag and study as many great whites as possible, and it runs a popular shark-tracker website, where you can follow scores of tagged sharks with names like Esperanza and Leon III.

"On the East Coast, there's been greater than a 40 percent increase since the 1980s," said George Burgess, who was involved in both of the studies as director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at University of Florida. "And on the West Coast, I don't have a percentage, but I can tell you the population's at about 2,400 shark, which is reasonably high, and the number of young sharks in California [is] coming up."

He credited the surge in shark numbers to better fishery management and heightened awareness, as well as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which was enacted in 1972 and has slowly been raising seal and sea lion population measures.

Other measures taken to help the shark population thrive decades ago are also just starting to bear fruit.

"Sharks are animals that we say are living in the slow lane," Burgess told NBC News on Monday. "They are long-lived animals that grow slowly and reach sexual maturity at a larger size and age. They also have very few young, and as a result when populations are down they usually are really down. It takes decades rather than years to recover."

Burgess blamed the drop in the great white shark's population in the first place on commercial fishing (especially for Asian markets), sport fishing and the movies.

And "in part because of the movie 'Jaws' — in fact in large part because of that," said Burgess. "Every red-blooded American guy on the East Coast wanted to go ahead and catch a shark. There was this collective testosterone rush on the East Coast."

Much of the commercial fishing of sharks sends meat to markets where shark-fin soup is a expensive delicacy.

"Two hundred and fifty thousand sharks are being killed a day for a bowl of soup in Asia," said Fischer.

A study in 2013 by Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, estimated that 100 million sharks are killed every year around the world.


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