Nearly a dozen shark-attack victims — many of them badly scarred or missing limbs — pressed Congress on Wednesday to protect a sea creature they'd rather not run into again.
The group wants to strengthen laws protecting sharks from "finning," in which fins are sliced from sharks for their meat, leaving the fish for dead. The growing market for fin meat, a popular soup delicacy in Asia, threatens many shark species around the world, they say.
"We bring pretty instant credibility," said Chuck Anderson, a school athletic director from Summerdale, Ala., who spent 13 days in intensive care and lost most of his right arm after being attacked by a bull shark in 2000 while swimming off Gulf Shores, Ala. "I've yet to run into anyone who disagrees with us."
Anderson and other attack victims wore white T-shirts reading "Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation" as they met with senators and staffers. The lobbying blitz was organized by the Pew Environment Group to pass a bill strengthening language in an existing ban on finning in U.S. waters.
The measure, which supporters say would close loopholes and allow for stronger enforcement, easily passed the House by voice vote in March and has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. Among other things, it would prohibit sea vessels from carrying illegal fins whether they fished them or not, and it would allow the U.S. to call attention to other nations that are not following through with finning bans.
Anderson and Al Brenneka, who lost his right arm to a seven-foot lemon shark while surfing off Delray Beach, Fla., in 1976, said their attacks prompted them to learn more about sharks and, ultimately, to believe that humans are a far greater threat to them than they are to people.
"I don't think it's right for me to be angry. I went into their environment," said Anderson, who said the bull shark that attacked him pulled him 15 feet to the bottom of the ocean, flipping him around "like a ragdoll," before snapping off his arm.
Brenneka, who lost so much blood after his attack that his heart stopped temporarily, said he felt some resentment initially. But "after a while you learn that it's really not the sharks that are doing anything wrong," he said.
"They're actually a shy animal, and when they do attack it's a freak occurrence," said Brenneka, a computer repairman from Spring Hope, N.C. "I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Shark attacks are extremely rare. There were 59 worldwide last year, four of them fatal, according to George Burgess, a leading shark expert who directs the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History.
Meanwhile, a study released last month by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that roughly a third of all sharks worldwide are in danger of extinction. The threatened species include hammerheads, the great white and mako sharks.
The organization said sharks killed at sea are often used only for their fin meat or are incidental bycatch as fishermen seek tuna and swordfish. Finning has been banned in most international waters, but advocacy groups say the rules are poorly enforced.