Victims unite to save sharks

They've lost arms, legs, ankle parts, but nine survivors of encounters with sharks said 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 just 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.

Threatened with extinction

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

Scientists say that wiping out sharks, which are at the top of the ocean food chain, creates a destructive ripple effect throughout the marine eco-system.

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.

Ocean eco-system

"The ramifications on the ocean eco-system 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.

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

The survivors said the fear inspired by sharks, most famously in the massively popular film 'Jaws', is hugely distorted.

70 people bitten annually

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, 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."

She said that she came to understand that instead she should go the other way and help the fearsome, but vulnerable fish.

"I decided I needed to find some sort of reason," she said. "I decided this was a test, a test of my commitment to environmental conservation." (Sapa/ September 2010)

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