Today, nine shark "attack" victims from around the nation were brought to Washington, DC by the Pew Environment Group to promote the Shark Conservation Act of 2009 (S. 850/H.R. 81), legislation which would strengthen the ban on shark finning in U.S. waters and encourage shark conservation programs around the world. The US effort is part of a global campaign recently launched by Pew to stem the rapid decline of the world's sharks.
“Sharks have evolved over 400 million years to become an ‘apex predator' in the marine ecosystem, yet our fears help paint a grave picture for their future. It's time to replace fear with understanding and action, just as we have for lions and other apex predators,” said Debbie Salamone, an Orlando, Florida resident and communications manager at the Pew Environment Group who was bitten by a shark at the Cape Canaveral National Seashore in east Central Florida in 2004.
The market for shark fins, highly valued for use in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup, is a major driving force in the overfishing of sharks. Shark meat is usually much less valuable, leading too often to shark “finning”: slicing off a shark's fin and dumping the rest of the body back into the ocean. This wasteful practice is banned in the U.S., but loopholes in the law hamper its effectiveness, and many other countries still allow finning.
“You are more likely to be killed by lightning than a shark,” said George Burgess, whose work at the Florida Museum of Natural History has highlighted the paucity of shark attacks in the world. “If only the sharks were so lucky. Up to 73 million sharks are killed around the world annually. In contrast, only a handful of people die every year from the 50-70 shark attacks worldwide.”
A recent report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified 35 out of 64 known pelagic (open ocean) shark and related ray species around the world as Threatened or Near Threatened with extinction. According to the report, overfishing is the primary reason for the threatened status of a number of shark species in U.S. waters, including great whites, three species of thresher sharks, makos, porbeagles, oceanic whitetips, and three species of hammerheads.
In advocating for the Shark Conservation Act, introduced by Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) in April and passed by the House of Representatives by unanimous consent in March, the survivors hope that their unique voices will make a difference.
“The media makes sharks out to be monsters, some people make them out to be huggable little creatures, but neither is completely true,” said Al Brenneka, of Raleigh, North Carolina, who lost his arm after being bitten while surfing in Del Ray Beach, Florida, in 1976. Brenneka now runs a shark attack survivors network and also tags and releases sharks for research. “Sharks are wild animals that deserve our respect, not our retribution.”
“The repercussions from overfishing sharks are severe; it is critical to look at the big picture,” said Robyne Knutson of Santa Cruz, California, an artist who was bitten in the leg off the Maui shore in 1999.
“They're at the top of the food chain and everything else depends on them,” said Mike Coots, who lost a leg to a shark while surfing off the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1997. Coots, who still lives in Kauai, now surfs with a prosthesis.
“I don't want to swim around and play with them, but just because you don't like them doesn't mean you want to see them exterminated,” said Charles Anderson of Summerdale, Alabama, who was bitten in the arm at Gulf Shores, Alabama, in 2000 while training for a triathlon. After losing his arm, Anderson has gone on to finish 17 triathlons.
Other survivors came from New York, Rhode Island, Florida and California. All of them highlighted the need for Senator Kerry's legislation, which would prohibit the removal of shark fins at sea, eliminate loopholes, strengthen enforcement in the current U.S. shark finning ban and promote the conservation of sharks internationally.
“We need Congressional action to further shark conservation and strengthen the U.S. shark finning ban,” said Matt Rand, director of the Pew Environment Group's Global Shark Conservation Campaign. “If we don't act now, too many shark species will face extinction.”