Pushing for conservation, shark attack victims turn the other cheek

Bill Plowman/ AP Images/Pew Environment Group
Nine shark bite victims pose in front of the US Capitol Wednesday. The group joined advocates in pushing for the Shark Conservation Act of 2009 (S. 850/H.R. 81), which would strengthen the ban on shark finning in US waters and encourage shark conservation programs around the world.

In an extraordinary display of forgiveness, nine victims of shark attacks lobbied the Senate last week, on behalf of the creatures that injured them.

The sharkattack survivors urged the legislature to enact the Shark Conservation Act of 2009, which would strengthen the ban on "finning" and support shark conservation programs worldwide. The bill has already passed in the House of Representatives.

"It’s time to replace fear with understanding and action, just as we have for lions and other apex predators," said Debbie Salamone,  communications manager at the Pew Environment Group, in a press release. In 2004, Ms. Salamone was in waist-deep water off the the Cape Canaveral National Seashore in Florida when a shark tore into her heel.

After the attack, Salamone left her newspaper job and now works full time for the Pew group. This spring, she began contacting other shark attack survivors. Most of those she called agreed to join the conservation effort.

But for some, it took time to get over their anger at the animals. The Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold spoke with Al Brenneka, who lost his right arm to a lemon shark in 1976:

Brenneka, whose attack made him go from a righty to a lefty, took his anger out on the animals directly. He would go deep-sea fishing and use a "powerhead" – a bullet fired from a long tube – to kill the sharks he hooked. He saved the jaws and ate the meat.

But then, Brenneka said, he went diving to see sharks, did research on them and concluded that the one that attacked him was not at fault.

Brenneka went on to  found Shark Attack Survivors in 1988, a group that supports shark conservation efforts. Now, instead of killing sharks, he tags and releases them.

Despite making headlines, attacks by sharks are extremely rare, and fatal attacks even more so. According to the statistics compiled by the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, those living in coastal states are more than twice as likely to be killed by lightning than bitten by a shark.

For sharks, however, the odds don't look so good. A report last month by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found that one-third of open ocean sharks face extinction, primarily because of overfishing.

Particularly controversial is the practice of finning. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in China, and demand is growing as more Chinese enter the middle classes. The fins are obtained by cutting the fin off living sharks and then discarding the rest of the body – which is of little value to fishermen – back into the sea, where the usually still-living shark sinks to the ocean floor and dies.

According to National Geographic, some 38 million sharks are killed for their fins each year.

The practice is illegal in US territorial waters and that of many other countries, but enforcement is lax. The Senate bill seeks to close many of the law's loopholes.

The Washington Post story quotes Mike deGruy, a marine biologist who lost some function in his hand after being bitten by a grey reef shark in 1978. DeGruy said he could relate to what it must be like to be one of those unfortunate sharks.

"We've been finned," he told the Post. "It's not a good thing"

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