Shark-Attack Survivors Band Together to Save Sharks

A group of activists who survived being bitten by sharks is leading an effort in the U.S. to highlight the plight of the threatened predators, starting with what's really in shark-fin soup

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Shawn Heinrichs / Pew Environment Group

A fisherman’s catch of sharks and mahi mahi on the coast of Taiwan

Debbie Salamone makes an unlikely spokesperson for sharks. In 2004, Salamone, then an investigative journalist for the Orlando Sentinel, was swimming off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Fla., when a shark bit her foot, severing her Achilles tendon. It took her weeks to recover and months for the wound to fully heal, but in the years since the attack she’s become sharks’ ultimate champion, rallying dozens of fellow survivors in an effort to save the threatened predators.

“It is the ultimate story of irony and forgiveness,” she says. “After I got attacked, I was really not a big fan of sharks. In fact, I was plotting my revenge and planning to eat shark steaks.”

But then she had a “crisis of conscience” and realized she couldn’t really blame a shark for being a shark. So instead of taking her frustration out with a fork and a knife, she decided to work to preserve the animals by raising awareness of the world’s declining shark population. Salamone joined the Pew Environment Group and scientists at Stony Brook University to conduct the nation’s first large-scale sampling of shark-fin soup, discovering that not only did those who consumed the Chinese delicacy in the U.S. often have no clue what kind of shark they were eating, but that they were — at an alarming rate — often eating endangered animals.

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The study, released today, reveals that “we definitely need some better rules about shark fishing around the world,” Salamone says. The group collected samples of shark-fin soup from 14 U.S. cities; DNA samples were extracted from the fins after they had gone through the traditional preparation process of being dried, stored, chemically treated and cooked. The samples were then tested by Stony Brook professor Demian Chapman of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, in cooperation with the Pritzker Laboratory in Chicago. From the study, says Liz Karan, Pew’s global shark-conservation-campaign manager, it’s clear that “Americans that eat shark-fin soup might unknowingly be consuming endangered sharks.” In the 32 bowls that contained enough usable shark DNA for testing, researchers found that eight contained the fins of endangered or vulnerable shark species, including scalloped hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, shortfin mako, school and spiny dogfish. Eighteen bowls contained “near threatened” varieties, including blue, copper and bull sharks. (One sample, from Denver, contained zero actual shark — proving that those who indulge in the delicacy usually have no idea what they’re getting in their $100 bowl of soup.)

Each year, 73 million sharks are finned and killed to make soup, and up to 30% of all shark species are threatened or nearly threatened with extinction. While shark-fin soup isn’t illegal in the U.S., Karan says, “we are letting people know to at least think twice about it.”

Salamone says that with few international rules on shark fishing and only a handful of shark sanctuaries in the world, endangered species get caught right along with all kinds of other fish, often by commercial fishermen trawling with baited lines up to 40 miles (65 km) long. “They are going after tuna and swordfish, and sharks are getting hooked,” she says.

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With a dry fin fetching as much as $700 per kg, depending on the species, the international trade of sharks shows little sign of slowing down, despite recent moves to highlight the problem. Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington (and soon Illinois) all have laws banning the importation and sale of shark fins. There are now almost 1.9 million sq. mi. (5 million sq km) of shark sanctuary waters — where sharks cannot be fished — in the Maldives, Honduras, the Bahamas, Palau, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands. And just last month China, far and away the world’s biggest consumer of shark-fin soup, banned the delicacy from being served at official state banquets.

By timing the release of the study with the popular Shark Week programming on the Discovery Channel, which kicks off on Aug. 12, Pew wants people to understand that sharks are being pillaged at an unsustainable rate. “There is a little bit of a Jaws factor,” Karan says. “We get sidetracked by how ferocious they are as a predator and don’t see them for the role they play for the environment.”

By bringing together survivors of shark attacks to save the animals, Salamone hopes to transform their horrific experiences into countering that stereotype. “We were all in the ocean to begin with because we love it,” she says. “If we can stick up for sharks, that turns a lot of heads. We all wanted to turn something really bad into something with a positive impact, then our suffering wasn’t for nothing.”

MORE: Taiwan to Enact Asia’s First Ban on Shark Finning