Shark Attack Survivors Emerge as Unlikely Allies in Conservation Efforts

A decade of conservation changed a species’ image from villain to vulnerable

Shark Attack Survivors Emerge as Unlikely Allies in Conservation Efforts
Shark survivors
Members of Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation from around the world visited the United Nations in 2010 to ask governments to end fishing of these vulnerable species and create sanctuaries where commercial shark fishing is banned.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

This is the fourth in a series of articles commemorating a decade of shark conservation work.

Would a shark encounter and its severe consequences affect how you feel about the species? Fortunately, most people will never have to answer that question. But here’s the story of three who did: Debbie Salamone, who was bitten off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, and is an employee of The Pew Charitable Trusts; Achmat Hassiem, who lost his leg to a great white off Cape Town, South Africa, and became a medal-winning Paralympic swimmer; and Mike Coots, whose leg was severed by a tiger shark while surfing off Kauai, Hawaii.

Founded in 2009, Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation joined the shark conservation community, stating its belief that protecting these top predators was critical for ocean health. The group, which has grown to around two dozen members from around the world, advocated for passage of the Shark Conservation Act of 2010 in the United States and for management and protections of vulnerable shark species globally.

Note: Comments have been edited for clarity and length.

Q. How did you come to advocate for an animal that changed your life?

Salamone: When something so rare happens, it’s only natural to wonder why. I figured this was a push in my life—to either turn away from my lifelong passion for the environment or view it as a test of my commitment. So, I decided to go all in for the environment and use my experience to do good.

Shark survivors
Debbie Salamone, founder of Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation, near where a shark severed her Achilles tendon in 2004.
Edward Linsmier for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Coots: I was curious why I got attacked and read shark attack books and shark attack files religiously, trying to find answers. The more I searched, the more questions I had. I knew a lot about what sharks were doing to humans, and very little on what humans were doing to sharks. Then I watched the film “Sharkwater,” and my mind was blown. And instantly knew I needed to help in any way I can. The more I learned, the stronger the desire to protect sharks became.

Hassiem: It wasn’t immediate. I mean, losing my leg was traumatic. It took me a while to not pity myself. At first, I thought my life as I knew it was over. But as time passed and I got into swimming again and started competing, I started feeling better.

And then the Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation group contacted me and provided information about sharks and the plight they are facing around the world. The more I learned, the more I wanted to get involved.

Shark survivors
Mike Coots surfs with a prosthetic after his leg was taken by a tiger shark off Kauai.
Courtesy of Mike Coots

Q. What was the biggest misunderstanding or fallacy about sharks that you believed prior to your encounter?

Salamone: Before my injury, I had no idea shark populations were in so much trouble. How could the ocean’s ultimate predator become hunted to the point that half of all species are threatened or near threatened with extinction? I was shocked to learn at the time that up to 73 million sharks were killed each year, and now it’s estimated to be 100 million, primarily for their fins to make shark fin soup.

Coots: I used to think that sharks are brainless man-eaters that have no important function in the ocean. 

Hassiem: I didn’t know that many sharks don’t reproduce like other fish. Many shark species don’t bear young until later in their lives and may only have a few offspring every or every other year. And then there’s the issue of sharks being vital to healthy oceans. Causing the collapse of healthy ecosystems by fishing out sharks is something we can’t afford to do.

Shark survivors
Achmat Hassiem lost his leg to a great white shark off Cape Town in 2006. Six years later, he won a bronze medal in the 100-meter butterfly at the Paralympic Games in London.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Q. What are you most proud of in your shark advocacy?

Salamone: I am most proud of seeing a shift in public sentiment toward sharks. I think people have heard us—and other shark advocates—and are more aware of the plight of sharks. Today, I think people better understand that attacks are extremely rare and these animals play a critical role in our ocean ecosystems.

Coots: I would say the people I have met on the way—biologists and future biologists who love sharks and are doing everything they can to learn more about them, and of course passionate folks at nongovernmental organizations working tirelessly to spread the word on shark legislation and education. 

Hassiem: I was the keynote speaker at the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals meeting in 2014 in Quito, Ecuador, then received a great honor in January 2016 when the United Nations Save Our Sharks Coalition named me the Global Shark Guardian for raising awareness about shark conservation. And I was part of the team in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2016 at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora that saw silky sharks, three species of thresher sharks, and nine species of mobula rays receive trade protections. It may sound surprising, but my shark conservation work is just as rewarding to me as winning Paralympic medals.

Shark survivors
Hassiem gave the keynote address before the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species meeting in 2014 in Quito, Ecuador.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Q. Do you see yourself continuing shark conservation work?

Salamone: I will always be a shark and ocean advocate. I expect to continue speaking out whenever it can make a difference. And I’ll share news and updates on the group’s Facebook page.

Coots: It’s one of the greatest ways I could be of help in my life. I feel it’s my calling to keep educating others on sharks and plan on continuing for the rest of my life on Earth.

Shark survivors
After his traumatic encounter with a tiger shark in 1997, Coots now advocates for conservation of the species.
Courtesy of Mike Coots

Hassiem: My shark encounter was one of the best days of my life. At least that’s how I look at it now. To me, it is destiny that a shark brought me to where I am now, so I need to do everything in my power to give back to sharks.

Shark Science
Shark Science
Article

How Shark Science Led to a Breakthrough in Trade Regulations

Quick View
Article

How Shark Science Led to a Breakthrough in Trade Regulations

Science has often been the impetus for government action to protect sharks. That evidence has provided important information about the crucial role sharks play in the ecosystem, their value to ecotourism, and the decline of some populations that are being driven toward local extinction.

Palau
Palau
Article

How Shark Sanctuaries Sparked a Conservation Movement

Quick View
Article

How Shark Sanctuaries Sparked a Conservation Movement

Ten years ago, sharks had few protections and little management in the face of threats—including targeted fishing to incidental catch—everywhere they traveled. But in 2009, Palau designated the world’s first shark sanctuary, starting a wave of conservation that has since grown to 17 sanctuaries.

Sharks
Sharks
Article

From Villain to Vulnerable: How a Decade Changed the Perception of Sharks

Quick View
Article

From Villain to Vulnerable: How a Decade Changed the Perception of Sharks

The shark’s transformation from feared and despised to respected and even valued was no accident.