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The Shark Attack That Changed My Life

Media Coverage

Publication Name

The World (Germany)

Author(s)

Debbie Salamone

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#PewSharks

This article originally appeared in German in The World.

 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 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 foot.

Hammerhead sharkIt happened in 2004, in the Atlantic Ocean 15 meters off the coast of Florida. 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 to help the oceans, I knew I had to save the ultimate predator.

Into the shark’s corner

"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?"

-Paul de Gelder, Pew volunteer

Only about 65 people are attacked by sharks worldwide each year, and becoming one of them has 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 so 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 of saving sharks. Some of these survivors 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. We have traveled to the U.S. Capitol and the United Nations seeking measures to save these animals, which as top predators help maintain healthy oceans by keeping the food web in balance.

“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, 34. De Gelder is an Australian navy diver who lost a leg and hand in 2009 when a shark attacked him during a training exercise in Sydney Harbor. He spoke to U.N. delegates in September 2010 about accepting life’s challenges, describing how he returned to work with two prosthetic limbs.

“Regardless of what an animal does according to its base instincts of survival, it has its place in our world, and we, as the guardians of this world, have an obligation to protect and maintain their continued survival and the natural balance of our delicate ecosystems,” he said.  

Not as tough as they look

Shark Fin SoupFor 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 €105 per kilogram and are sold mostly to Asian markets as a soup ingredient.

“We can’t take down our sharks for a bowl of soup. We should save our environment for the next generation,” says Achmat Hassiem, 30, a Pew volunteer from South Africa. He lost a leg in 2006 when he was attacked by a great white shark during lifeguard training exercises. He distracted the animal so his brother could get into a boat, but the shark attacked Hassiem, dragging him underwater. With only an outstretched arm remaining above the waves, Hassiem’s brother grabbed it and hauled him aboard, saving his life.

Many countries have banned shark finning—the process of 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. Although the cruel practice is declining, the demand for fins remains strong. Fishermen simply bring the dead sharks back to port and cut off the fins on land. The European Union is considering a proposal that would require shark fins be attached whenever the animals are brought in by EU-registered vessels, as well as vessels fishing in EU waters.

In addition to being sought for their fins, sharks are frequently caught accidentally by fishermen targeting other species, particularly tuna and swordfish. Untold numbers die when caught on unintended fishing lines up to 64 kilometers long, studded with thousands of hooks. In the U.S. Atlantic alone, sharks make up 25 percent of all fish caught using these long lines in the open ocean. Because they are slow-growing, late to mature, and bear few pups, shark populations have difficulty recovering from these losses.

Killing too many sharks can devastate the ocean. Some studies show that a decrease in sharks can cause dramatic change to 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.

That’s why my colleagues at Pew and the shark attack survivors are devoted to saving this predator, which historically draws little sympathy.

Changing the rules

Great White SharkOne 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 established sanctuaries that together span nearly 4.7 million square kilometers of ocean. That’s more than 13 times Germany’s land area. Yet these protected waters are just a start when you consider that the oceans make up about 360 million square kilometers of the Earth’s surface.

In addition to the environmental benefits, sanctuaries make economic sense.

At the request of Palau, a small Pacific island country and one of the world’s top diving destinations, Australian researchers compared the tourism value of a shark versus the commercial value of its fins. The fin cut from one dead reef-dwelling shark for soup is worth €84. But tourism dollars generated by that living shark: €1.5 million over its lifetime.

In the Bahamas, shark tourism has added more than €618 million to the country’s economy during the past 20 years, according to the Bahamas Diving Association. The effort to create the Bahamian shark sanctuary was launched as reports circulated about a foreign fishing company potentially setting up a finning operation. The Bahamas is home to more than 40 shark species, which have flourished because of restrictions on fishing and a ban on long lines.

Although these local actions are helpful, global solutions have been slow in coming. World leaders have not agreed on trade protections for sharks, and virtually no limits exist on fishing on the high seas. Even though U.N. member countries agreed more than a decade ago to develop conservation plans, few have done so.

In 2010, the shark attack survivors and Pew took our cause to the U.N. in New York, where we asked countries to follow through on their 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. And we are pressing for better shark fishing rules and limits in countries that haul in the most: Indonesia; India; Taiwan, Province of China; Spain; and Mexico.

The nearly 200 nations that are part of a treaty that governs endangered species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, will meet in 2013. At their most recent meeting in 2010, the nations bowed to commercial fishing interests and declined to grant protections to some of the most severely depleted sharks, including hammerheads. Only three species currently have some trade protections—great white, whale, and basking sharks—even though experts say more than 200 species need some form of safeguard. Countries should realize that short-term fishing profits can risk the long-term health and economic benefit of the ocean ecosystem. We are calling on them to add measures covering more shark species.

From tragedy to triumph

Debbie SalamoneFor the shark attack survivors, the fight is personal. We want our misfortune to serve a greater good.

Krishna Thompson believes he survived his ordeal so he could pursue this calling and his volunteer work with Pew.

Thompson, a Wall Street banker, was celebrating his 10th wedding anniversary in the Bahamas in 2001 and went for an early-morning swim. Suddenly he saw a fin heading toward him. He tried to jump out of the way, but the shark caught his leg.

As it began dragging him under water and out to sea, Thompson took one last deep breath and saw the sun fade into the distance as he sank deeper. The shark shook Thompson wildly from side to side. Then, in one brief moment of calm, he 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. People ran to his side. Without enough strength to say his name, he wrote his hotel room number in the sand before losing consciousness.

Bleeding severely, Thompson was rushed to the hospital, where he almost died before doctors could revive him. They had no choice but to amputate his leg. It was a long recovery, but today the 46-year-old 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.

To read the full article in German, visit The World.

This article also appeared in the magazine Unterwasser. Download the PDF here.

 

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