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Shark victims unite to save their attackers

by Staff Writers
New York (AFP) Sept 13, 2010
They've lost arms, legs and ankle parts, but nine survivors of encounters with sharks said Monday that the oceans' greatest predator -- not man -- should fear the water.

The survivors gathered at the United Nations in New York to tell the world that their attackers, like the great white, desperately need protecting.

Paul de Gelder, an Australian navy diver whose right hand and lower right leg were torn off last year in Sydney Harbour, said he wanted to "speak out for an animal that can't speak for itself."

Rampant overfishing is driving some species to the brink of extinction, with 73 million sharks killed annually to feed Asia's demand for shark fin soup.

"We're decimating the population of sharks just for a bowl of soup," de Gelder said.

The Pew Environment Group, a US-based organization that brought the survivors to the United Nations, says 30 percent of shark species -- including great whites, whitetips and shortfin makos -- are threatened or near-threatened with extinction.

Some are close to collapse, such as the porbeagle whose population is down 90 percent, while the status of a further 47 percent is not properly known.

Scientists say that wiping out sharks, who are at the top of the ocean food chain, creates a destructive ripple effect throughout the marine ecosystem.

For example, sharks eat seabirds, so a reduction in shark numbers leads to more seabirds, who then eat up the bait fish needed for 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," said Matt Rand, director of shark conservation at Pew.

Pew is lobbying for an end to finning, where fishermen simply slice off shark fins and throw the mortally wounded creature back into the sea, and for strict catch limits to be imposed worldwide.

"In the open ocean, there are no limits on how many sharks can be caught," Rand said.

The survivors said the fear sharks inspire, most famously in the massively popular 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.

For some of the shark victims, advocating on behalf of their attackers was part of their efforts to move on from their often horrific accidents and to make sense of their changed lives.

De Gelder remembered fighting for his life with the shark. "I tried to go for the eyeball and realized I couldn't because my hand was in his mouth," he said. "I punched him. I think that just upset him."

Debbie Salamone, who went to work for Pew after a shark severed her Achilles tendon in 2004 in Florida, said that at first "I was really not a big fan of sharks. I wanted to plot my revenge and was planning to eat shark steaks."

Then, she decided to go the other way and help the fearsome, but vulnerable fish.

"I decided this was a test, a test of my commitment to environmental conservation," she said.

South African lifeguard Achmat Hassiem, who lost his right foot, described scraping his knuckles raw as he struggled with a great white more than twice his size. "It was like hitting a tank, a tank with sandpaper all over its body."

But like the others, Hassiem said he quickly realized that sharks were the true victims.

He said he didn't want his children or their children to end up having "to go to a museum and see what sharks used to look like."

"We can't take down our sharks for a bowl of soup," Hassiem said.

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