09/12/2009 - Sharks rarely attack people. The odds of a shark bite are roughly one in every 11.5 million times a person visits a beach, according to the International Shark Attack File. Unfortunately, I became one of the unlucky few, five years ago, when I was bitten by a shark while wading in waist-deep water, just 50 feet offshore of Florida's Cape Canaveral National Seashore.
Despite my accident, and the time I struggled through surgical recovery from a severed Achilles tendon and subsequent physical therapy, I remain committed to delivering an urgent message: Our oceans are in serious trouble. And if we don't act soon, sharks—which have inhabited the world's seas for hundreds of millions of years—could soon be hunted largely to extinction.
Sharks have roamed our oceans since before the age of the dinosaurs, but their long reign at the top of the ocean food chain may be ending. These ancient creatures now face a tragic one-two punch by modern man, for which evolution never prepared them: Overfishing is depleting sharks' food supply and, at the same time, sharks are being hunted for their fins.
Up to 73 million sharks are killed each year for the global fin trade, and scientists estimate that large predator fish populations, including many shark species, have plummeted by 90 percent.
In fact, according to a recent report released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, nearly 40 percent of the world's sharks and rays are threatened or near threatened with extinction. As the effects ripple down from the apex of the food chain, this loss of the world's top marine predators poses serious consequences for the entire ocean ecosystem.
Fetching upward of $300 per pound, shark fins are used to make a soup considered a great delicacy in parts of Asia. Some populations of hammerhead sharks have declined up to 99 percent in heavily fished regions.
While the fin trade may be lucrative, the rest of the shark is often worth very little by comparison. Far too often, after the valuable fins have been sliced off, the shark's body is dumped back into the water - sometimes still alive - and left to die. This wholesale slaughter should not be allowed to continue.
The U.S. banned shark finning in 2000 but the exploitation of legal loopholes has perpetuated finning here, and the practice continues worldwide. The proposed U.S. Shark Conservation Act of 2009 would close those gaps.
There is much work to be done globally: for example, further protection is needed under the international treaty that regulates trade in threatened and endangered species, while international catch limits for shark populations must be put in place and enforced.
I'm happy to say that five years after my attack, I'm just about as good as new. The story is unfolding differently for sharks, however. It may take some shark species 100 to 400 years to recover from the impacts of overfishing and finning, according to recent scientific research.
Over 400 million years, evolution may have made sharks one of the most efficient predators in the sea, but without our help this ancient creature could soon swim into oblivion.
This op-ed also appeared in the Augusta Chronicle.