09/25/2012 - In the instant the shark’s jaws clenched around my ankle, my life changed forever.
I kicked furiously to break free, but the shark bit down harder. I screamed for help and struggled to escape in the waist-deep water.
Suddenly the shark let go and I frantically made my way to shallower water, where someone dragged and then carried me to shore. I collapsed onto the sand and looked in horror at my shredded right foot.
It happened in 2004, in the Atlantic Ocean 50 feet off a Florida beach. My Achilles tendon was severed, and my heel was torn apart. I underwent surgery, but it would be three months before I could stand up, and even longer before I could walk more than a short distance.
During the difficult times, I sought answers. Why did this happen? My hobby was competitive ballroom dancing. Would I ever dance again? I had always loved nature, swimming in the ocean, and writing about the environment as an investigative newspaper reporter. Why did nature turn against me?
Finally, I came to see this terrifying encounter as a test of my resolve, my love of wildlife, and my dedication to protecting our oceans and all the animals that call it home. Sharks are a part of a wondrous ecosystem, and I knew I had to help save the ultimate predator.
Only about 65 people are attacked by sharks worldwide each year, and becoming one of them refocused my life vision. I decided to earn a master’s degree in environmental sciences and policy, and I left my job as a newspaper editor. I went to work for the Pew Environment Group, where I could help save sharks from extinction—a likely fate if humans do not stop killing them by the tens of millions each year. And yes, I even returned to the dance floor.
I have recruited other shark attack survivors from around the world to join our cause. Some lost arms or legs. Some nearly died. Yet all are now passionate defenders of the ocean and its inhabitants, including sharks. We forgive our attackers and recognize that our misfortunes make us ideal advocates.
“Are we so self-important … that we think we have the right to drive any animal to the brink of extinction before any action is taken?’’ asks Pew volunteer Paul de Gelder, 35, an Australian navy diver who lost a leg and hand in 2009 when a shark attacked him during a training exercise in Sydney Harbor.
For more than 400 million years, sharks have roamed the seas. Today, however, nearly a third of all shark species are in danger of extinction. Up to 73 million are killed each year for their fins, which can fetch up to $300 per pound and are sold mostly to Asian markets as a soup ingredient.
Many countries have banned finning—slicing off a shark’s fins at sea and dumping the animal, sometimes still alive, into the ocean, where it drowns or bleeds to death. In 2009, the survivors were instrumental in advocating legislation that closed loopholes in the U.S. shark finning ban. Although the cruel practice is declining, demand for fins remains strong. Fishermen simply bring dead sharks back to port and cut off the fins on land.
In addition to being sought for their fins, sharks are frequently caught accidentally by fishermen targeting other species, particularly tuna and swordfish. In some instances when fishermen use long hooked lines, sharks can make up 25 percent of the catch. Because they are slow-growing, late to mature, and bear few pups, sharks have difficulty recovering from these losses.
Killing too many can devastate the ocean. Some studies show that a decrease in sharks can dramatically change coral reefs, sea-grass beds and other habitats. If sharks are not present to eat prey, those animals’ numbers can increase, adversely affecting the food web.
One remedy is gaining momentum: shark sanctuaries. Since 2009, Pew has been instrumental in helping nations establish protected areas where commercial shark fishing and trade in fins and other shark products are banned. Six countries—Palau, the Maldives, Honduras, the Bahamas, Tokelau, and the Marshall Islands—have created sanctuaries that together span nearly 1.8 million square miles of ocean.
Beyond the environmental benefits, sanctuaries make economic sense.
Australian researchers compared the tourism value of a shark in Palau, a top diving destination, with the commercial value of its fins. The fin cut from one dead reef-dwelling shark for soup: $108. Tourism dollars generated by that living shark: $1.9 million over its lifetime.
In the Bahamas, shark tourism has added more than $800 million to the economy during the past 20 years, according to the Bahamas Diving Association. The Bahamas is home to more than 40 shark species, which have flourished because of fishing restrictions and a ban on long lines.
Although local actions are helpful, global solutions have been slow. World leaders have agreed on trade protections for only a handful of shark species, and virtually no limits exist on fishing on the high seas. Even though United Nations member countries agreed more than a decade ago to develop conservation plans, those that exist aren’t enough.
In 2010, shark attack survivors and Pew took our cause to the U.N., asking countries to follow through on promises to save sharks. We continue to call on nations to commit to setting sustainable catch levels, stop fishing for the most vulnerable species and establish shark sanctuaries. We also want them to require safer fishing gear to reduce accidental catch of sharks.
The nearly 200 nations that are part of a treaty governing endangered species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, will meet in 2013. At the most recent meeting in 2010, nations bowed to commercial fishing interests and declined to protect some of the most severely depleted sharks, including hammerheads. Only three species currently have trade protections—great white, whale and basking sharks. Countries should realize that short-term fishing profits can risk the long-term health and economic benefits of the ocean ecosystem.
For shark attack survivors, the fight is personal. We want our misfortune to inspire us to serve a greater good. Krishna Thompson believes he survived his ordeal so he could pursue this calling and his volunteer work with Pew.
A Wall Street banker, Thompson was on an early morning swim in the Bahamas in 2001 when he saw a fin heading toward him. He tried to jump out of the way, but the shark caught his leg, shaking him wildly from side to side. Then, in one brief moment of calm, Thompson swung around and punched the shark. Miraculously, it let go. Thompson watched it swim away, surfaced for a desperate breath of air and then looked at his leg. Only bone remained.
He summoned all of his energy to get to shore, where he collapsed. Bleeding severely, Thompson was rushed to the hospital, and he almost died before doctors could revive him. His leg was amputated. It was a long recovery, but today Thompson, now 46, walks with a prosthesis and occasionally plays basketball.
“I have a second chance at life,” he says. “There has to be a reason I’m here, and I believe part of that reason is shark conservation. I’m here to give a voice to these animals, to make the environment and society a better place for all of us.”
Debbie Salamone works with the Pew Environment Group’s Global Shark Conservation Campaign and is communications manager for Pew’s efforts to end overfishing in the Southeastern United States.