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Saving sharks from the jaws of humans

Posted Aug. 09, 2011, at 9:35 p.m.

I’ve always loved being out on the water. As a wind surfer, the chance in 2003 to travel to a resort on a small island in South America seemed like a dream come true. Yet, an attack by a shark soon after my arrival turned my family vacation into a nightmare.

I’ll never forget that day eight years ago. And it’s hard to describe to people the exact sensation I felt looking down, seeing the unthinkable through the transparent waters as a shark seized my leg.

With the loss of my right foot, travel today is now much harder, whether near or far. However, I didn’t hesitate for a minute when I was invited last year to New York City as part of an effort by a group of shark attack survivors from around the world to urge the United Nations to better protect these remarkable, misunderstood kings of the deep.

I don’t blame all sharks for my injury, though one caused my impairment. After a period of emotional and physical recovery, I found that the incident had instead opened my eyes to the perilous state of the world’s most captivating and important animals, which, if lost, could set off a cascade of harmful effects across the entire ocean ecosystem.

Sharks are important predators that help maintain the balance of the ocean food chain. According to scientists, their disappearance is already having impacts on the health of our seas. For instance, researchers discovered a decline in one shellfish population off the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, which they associated with a dramatic rise in the number of shellfish predators, which are usually kept in check by sharks. In other regions, scientists have documented negative effects on coral reefs associated with the disappearance of shark species.

Yet, while shark attacks have been sensationalized over the years by the media and entertainment industry, in reality such events are quite rare. In fact, on average, fewer than four annual fatal attacks have occurred worldwide since 2001, according to researchers at the University of Florida.

On the other hand, humans kill up to 73 million sharks per year, most of them to supply the global demand for a type of soup. Unfortunately, these are often removed using a cruel practice called “finning.” This is almost always performed on live animals, whose bodies are then dumped overboard.

Without their fins these fish usually drown since they can no longer swim and move water across their gills to breathe. Other times they are eaten by other predators as they helplessly sink into the abyss. This is a wasteful practice that shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

According to recent research, some shark populations have declined by as much as 70 percent to 80 percent around the globe. In fact, some species, such as the porbeagle in the northwestern Atlantic and spiny dogfish in the northeastern Atlantic, have been reduced by 90 percent or more.

Statistics like these, combined with international inaction to protect these animals, have led several countries that rely on ocean ecosystems to declare their national waters shark sanctuaries by banning fishing for them. The small Pacific island nation of Palau was the first, creating a refuge the size of France in 2009. Palau was followed by the Indian Ocean island state of the Maldives, and in June of this year, by Honduras. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and most recently The Bahamas have also taken protective action. But if we are to truly save these ecologically significant animals, larger coordinated action on a global scale will be needed.

Last year, accompanied by shark attack survivors from five countries, I spoke with members from a number of government delegations to the United Nations on the importance of creating stronger international shark protections. While all the delegates we met with were supportive, promises alone won’t save these important predators from the threat of extinction.

I refuse to let my personal tragedy be compounded by another far greater one. It’s time for the international community to stop the senseless slaughter of sharks. Misplaced fear of these animals is no excuse for allowing fishing practices that are both cruel and threaten the natural balance of life in our oceans.

Yann Perras, a survivor of a 2003 shark attack off the coast of South America, now works with other such survivors to bring attention to the need for international shark protections. Readers may write to him at yann.perras@cg72.fr.

 

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