UNITED NATIONS — They have the scars and missing limbs that make it hard to forgive, but these victims are tougher than most. And now they want to save their attackers.
They are shark attack survivors, a band of nine thrown together in an unlikely and ironic mission to conserve the very creatures that ripped their flesh, tore off their limbs and nearly took their lives.
They want nations to adopt a resolution that would require them to greatly improve how fish are managed, including shark species of which nearly a third are threatened with extinction or on the verge of being threatened.
"If a group like us can see the value in saving sharks, can't everyone?" asked Florida shark bite victim Debbie Salamone, 44, whose Achilles tendon was severed in a 2004 attack that temporarily halted her ballroom dance hobby.
Salamone, a former journalist, initially made plans to eat shark steaks in revenge. Then, she said, she turned tragedy to something productive by joining the Washington-based nonprofit Pew Environment Group and recruiting like-minded shark attack survivors to work for shark conversation.
The group gathered at U.N. headquarters Monday hoping to win new protections globally for the ocean's top predators.
"We do not have scientific management plans for how many sharks can be caught," Matt Rand, director of Global Shark Conservation for the Pew Environment Group told reporters at the United Nations. "There are no limits."
Speaking with the attack survivors at a news conference held to draw attention to the world's dwindling shark population, Rand said the U.N. and its member nations must do more to resolve the problem.
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Among the group's goals is to end the practice of shark finning, which kills an estimated 73 million sharks a year. Fishermen slice off shark fins, which sell for hundreds of dollars a pound for use in soup mostly in Asian markets, but dump the animal back in the water where it drowns or bleeds to death.
Because sharks are slow growing, late to mature and produce few young, they are unable to replenish their populations as quickly as they are caught, Rand said in an earlier interview. Shark attack survivors also have sought U.S. legislation to close what they view as loopholes in the country's shark finning ban.
The survivors, ages 21 to 55, say being in the wrong place at the wrong time needn't diminish their love for the ocean, where they enjoyed surfing, swimming and diving and knew the risks.
They now see greater risks to the sharks and are asking the U.N. to halt fishing of threatened and near-threatened shark species and adopt shark conservation plans to study and impose scientific limits on shark catches.
Former lifeguard Achmat Hassiem, 29, of Cape Town, South Africa, lost his foot when a shark attacked him during rescue practice four years ago and said he now believes certain things happen for a reason.
"My dream was to one day become a marine biologist and focus on helping and protecting Earth's aquatic life. To participate in this event is an honor," he said.
More than a decade ago, nations agreed to voluntarily produce shark management plans, but only about 40 of some 130 nations followed through. International trade restrictions are in place for only three shark species: basking, whale and white sharks.
"Do we have the right to drive any animal to the brink of extinction before any action is taken?" asked Navy diver Paul de Gelder, 33, of Sydney, Australia, who lost his right hand and right lower leg in an attack last year during antiterrorism exercises.
"Regardless of what an animal does according to its base instincts of survival, it has its place in our world," he said. "We have an obligation to protect and maintain the natural balance of our delicate ecosystems."
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