NEW YORK, New York -- Shark attack survivors hailing from five countries are pushing the United Nations to adopt measures to protect sharks. The survivors-turned-advocates, brought together by the Pew Environment Group, are calling for countries to end the fishing of sharks threatened or near-threatened with extinction, stop the practice of finning and better manage fisheries to ensure long-term sustainability.
Commercial fisheries target sharks throughout the world, mostly for their fins and meat, but also for their cartilage, liver and skin. Up to 73 million of the fish are killed annually to support the fin trade alone, driven by demand for shark fin soup. Thirty percent of shark species are now threatened or near-threatened with extinction, and scientists lack enough data to properly assess the population status of an additional 47 percent.
"Do we have the right to drive any animal to the brink of extinction before any action is taken?" said Paul de Gelder, a diver for the Australian Navy. De Gelder lost his right hand and right lower leg to a bull shark last year while conducting anti-terrorism exercises. "Regardless of what an animal does according to its base instincts of survival, it has its place in our world. We have an obligation to protect and maintain the natural balance of our delicate ecosystems."
Debbie Salamone, a communications manager at the Pew Environment Group, was attacked by a shark in Florida in 2004 and needed her Achilles tendon reattached before resuming her hobby of competitive ballroom dancing. Today, she has taken up the call for conservation. "Sharks deserve protection, and I am proud to join with fellow survivors to carry that message," she said. "If we see the value in saving these animals after what we have endured, then everyone should."
"Even if the movie 'Jaws' has scared entire generations, we have to remember that it is only fiction," said Yann Perras of LeMans, France, whose leg was severed by a shark when windsurfing off the coast of Venezuela in 2003. "This animal is, like people, at the top of the food chain. We absolutely cannot accept fishing practices that menace the natural balance of the ocean environment."
The loss of sharks, one of the apex predators in the marine environment, disrupts the food web and can cause dramatic, negative consequences. Scientists have found a correlation between declines in shark populations and a shift from healthy, coral-dominated reefs to those that are barren, algae-dominated and dying.
U.N. member countries have an opportunity this week and next to address this problem when they refine their annual resolution on sustainable fisheries and review the Millennium Development Goals, which include a target to reduce biodiversity loss. This is also the International Year of Biodiversity. At a press conference, meetings with U.N. missions and a panel discussion at the U.N., the survivors will ask that delegates use these opportunities to advance shark conservation.
"The time has come to take meaningful action to protect sharks," said Matt Rand, director of the Pew Environment Group's Global Shark Conservation Campaign. "These survivors -- from many different corners of the world -- have overcome their experiences to push for shark conservation. It is our hope that the members of the U.N. hear this call and act."
Survivors attending the event include: - Achmat Hassiem-South Africa - Paul de Gelder-Australia - James Elliott-U.K. - Yann Perras-France - Vincent Motais de Narbonne-Reunion (French territory in the Indian Ocean) - Debbie Salamone-U.S. (Florida) - Chuck Anderson-U.S. (Alabama) - Mike Coots-U.S. (Hawaii) - Krishna Thompson-U.S. (New York)
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