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Predators in peril: shark numbers are plummeting. Meet a group of shark-attack survivors who are coming to the rescue of their onetime foes.

Back in 2003, Halloween day started just like any other for award-winning suffer Bethany Hamilton. The 13-year-old and her buddies headed out to one of their favorite surfing spots off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. But this wasn't going to be a typical day at the beach for Bethany.

While she waited for a wave, a 4.6 meter (15 foot)-long tiger shark swam up and bit her, ripping off her left arm just below the shoulder. She was rushed to the hospital, where doctors patched up what remained of her limb. Despite the loss of her arm, Bethany was back surfing less than a month after the shark attack.


Each year, sharks attack roughly 60 people worldwide. Often a shark attack is a case of mistaken identity. Some surfers on their boards may look like tasty seals; and brightly colored, shiny bathing suits glimmer like fish scales---luring hungry sharks.

Armed with the knowledge that sharks usually do not target humans intentionally, a group of shark-attack survivors from across the United States have united to support an unlikely cause: They want to protect their finned attackers. Last summer, the nine-member group gathered in Washington, D.C., to meet with members of the Senate and Congress to help pass a bill aimed at protecting sharks, whose numbers have declined dramatically over the past 40 years. The participants agreed that they had been attacked because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, says Debbie Salamone, a shark-attack survivor who works for the Pew Environmental Group and helped organize the gathering. "It wasn't the sharks' fault," she says.




Why do these fearsome ocean predators need protection? "Essentially 38 percent of the world's shark species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction," says Matt Rand, director of the Pew's Global Shark Program in Washington, D.C.

This is because they are caught not only on purpose for their meat, but also as bycatch, or fish that are caught unintentionally by fishing boats targeting other species.

Some fishing boats even practice something called shark finning, in which they remove the fins of a dead--and sometimes still living--shark and then throw the body back into the sea. A mutilated shark left alive after finning won't survive long in the ocean.

The fins are then sold to restaurants that make a delicacy called shark-fin soup. Because of its size the hammerhead shark has one of the most valuable fins; it can earn the fishers up to $700 per kilogram. But the rest of the hammerhead meat is nowhere near as high in demand. So the fishers find that it's not worth the time and energy to transport the large carcass back to port. This is one of the areas that the bill, called the Shark Conservation Act of 2009, addresses.

The bill would close loopholes m an existing U.S. shark-finning ban and make it illegal to bring back any shark fins not attached to their carcasses. This way, regulators can keep track of the number of sharks caught and make sure that protected species don't end up for sale in fish markets. "[Shark fins are] the new caviar," says Rand. "But it's a massive waste of a natural resource that has major impacts on the ocean ecosystem."



"Sharks are apex predators. They are at the top of the food chain," says George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Being apex predators doesn't necessarily make sharks more important than the plankton and other fish that make up the ocean food web, or interconnected system where organisms eat other organisms to obtain the energy they need to survive (see Nuts & Bolts, below). But since there are typically fewer predators than prey, removing a large number of predators allows the prey populations to boom, which throws the entire system off balance.

Some sharks are more threatened than others. Species that live near the shore or in rivers and estuaries have more interaction with humans, so they are at the greatest risk. Other sharks, like the great hammerhead, are also highly threatened because they take a long time to mature and reproduce only every two years. These sharks are often captured and killed faster than they can repopulate the waters.


During their visit to Capitol Hill, the shark-attack survivors raised awareness for the plight of sharks and convinced several more Senators and members of Congress to sign on to support the bill. As of press time, the bill has passed in the House of Representatives but was still waiting for a vote in the Senate. Rand is optimistic and believes that it will be signed into law this summer.

"I just felt compelled by my situation to do something and be an advocate so that I could try to get some good out of the shark attack," says Mike Coots, a surfer and shark-attack survivor who lives in Hawaii and campaigned for sharks last spring. "Without sharks, our marine environment would break down, and [this environment is] such a livelihood for all of us here in Hawaii and all of the coastal states around the world."

TEACHERS: For WHITEBOARD-READY content relating to this article, go to: scienceworld

it's your choice

1. A group of -- gathered in Washington, D.C., to help protect sharks last summer.

(A) shark owners

(B) aquarium directors

(C) shark-attack survivors

(D) biologists who study sharks

2. Approximately how many people are attacked by sharks each year?

(A) 25 (B) 30 (C) 60 (D) 75

3. Why are shark numbers plummeting?

(A) Sharks are being caught as bycatch by fisheries.

(B) Sharks are being killed for attacking humans.

(C) Sharks are being killed for their valuable fins.

(D) Both a and c.


1. c 2. c 3. d

Predator in Peril


* What is a food web?

* What is the role of sharks in the ocean food web?

* Do you think there are any species of shark that are endangered?


* The shark species that are responsible for most of the attacks on humans are the bull shark, tiger shark, and great white shark.

* One of the top spots in the world for shark attacks is right here in the United States. New Smyrna Beach in Florida has the highest rate of shark attacks.

* Why do hammerhead sharks have such a distinctive head shape? A new study reveals that the hammer shape gives them 360-degree vision, allowing the sharks lo see everything above and below them at all times.


* Like sharks, killer whales are ocean predators that on rare occasions attack humans. A killer whale at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, recently killed its trainer'. This is the third time this particular whale has killed a human. Do you think the whale intended to harm its trainer'? What should be done with this whale? Can will animals ever really be trained?


GEOGRAPHY: Hundreds of shark species swim the world's oceans. Pick your favorite species of shark and shade in its range on a world map. Use this Web site to learn more about your chosen shark species: /nsrc/profiles.htm. How does your shark's range compare with that of the sharks your classmates chose?


You can access these Web links at * Watch a video about the shark-attack survivors who went to Washington, D.C., here: /videos/news-shark-attack-victims-speak-out-forsharks.html.

* Scientists at the Tagging of Pacific Predators program have been tracking white sharks to learn more about the animals. Watch this video about the travels of one juvenile white shark released from the Monterey Bay Aquarium last April:

* Peter Benchley, author of the book Jaws, which inspired a famous movie with the same title, has written a nonfiction book for young adults called Shark Life: True Stories About Sharks and the Sea, Yearling Publishing, 2005.

nuts & bolts

The ocean food web

Each yellow arrow leads from food to predator. In general, smaller creatures are food for larger ones. After marine life dies, it decays into nutrients that sink to the seafloor (red squiggles).


DIRECTIONS: Define the following terms in your own words.

1. bycatch

2. shark finning

3. apex predator

4. food web

1. Bycatch are the fish caught unintentionally by boats targeting other species.

2. Shark finning is the act of removing the fin of a shark and throwing the finless body back to the sea.

3. An apex predator is an organism at the top of a food web.

4. A food web is an interconnected system where organisms eat other organisms to obtain the energy they need to survive.
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Author:Hamalainen, Katrina
Publication:Science World
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 8, 2010
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