Shark attack survivors unite to save sharks

By AAP with AG Staff 14 September 2010
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Shark victims, including Aussie navy diver Paul de Gelder, have come together to help protect the predators.

THEY’VE LOST ARMS, LEGS and ankle parts, but nine survivors of encounters with sharks – including Australian navy diver Paul de Gelder – say that the ocean’s greatest predator has more reason to fear the water than we do.

The survivors gathered at the United Nations in New York on Monday to tell the world that their attackers, like the great white, desperately need protecting. Paul, whose right hand and lower right leg were torn off last year in Sydney Harbour, says he wants to “speak out for an animal that can’t speak for itself.”

Shark attack victims unite – for sharks

Rampant overfishing is driving some species to the brink of extinction, with 73 million sharks killed annually just to feed Asia’s demand for shark fin soup. “We’re decimating the population of sharks just for a bowl of soup,” Paul says.

The Pew Environment Group, a Washington-based NGO that brought the survivors to the UN, says 30 per cent of shark species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction, while the status of 47 per cent is not properly known.

Scientists say that wiping out sharks, which are at the top of the ocean food chain, is creating a destructive ripple effect throughout marine ecosystems.

For example, sharks eat seabirds, so that a reduction in shark numbers leads to more seabirds, who then eat up the bait fish needed by tuna, another endangered big fish. Another example is the gradual collapse of life on coral reefs once the primary predator is removed from the balance. “The ramifications on the ocean ecosystem are vast,” says Matt Rand, director of shark conservation at Pew.

Read our feature “Ten myths about sharks”

Putting an end to shark finning

Pew is lobbying for an end to finning, where fishermen slice off shark fins and throw the mortally wounded creatures backs into the sea, and for strict catch limits to be imposed worldwide. Currently “in the open ocean there are no limits on how many sharks can be caught,” Matt says. The survivors say that the fear inspired by sharks – most famously in the popular 1975 Steven Spielberg film Jaws – is hugely distorted.

Fewer than 70 people are recorded as being bitten annually worldwide, although the number does not include incidents in countries where statistics are not kept. Of those, just a handful die, making fatal shark attacks less likely than lightning strikes.

Debbie Salamone, who went to work for Pew after a shark severed her Achilles tendon in 2004 in Florida, says that at first “I wasn’t really a big fan of sharks. I wanted to plot my revenge and was planning to eat shark steak”

But she came to understand that instead she should go the other way and help the fearsome, but vulnerable fish, she adds. “I decided this was a test, a test of my commitment to environmental conservation.”