Survivors of Attacks Sink Teeth Into Fight to Save Sharks

Chuck Anderson of Summerdale, Ala., listens to Al Brenneka, Spring Hope, N.C., recounts his being attacked by a shark. They and other survivors are lobbying for legislation that puts new restrictions on fishing for sharks.
Chuck Anderson of Summerdale, Ala., listens to Al Brenneka, Spring Hope, N.C., recounts his being attacked by a shark. They and other survivors are lobbying for legislation that puts new restrictions on fishing for sharks. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chuck Anderson is in Washington today to save the thing that bit off his arm.

It happened in June 2000, when he was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico off Alabama. A seven-foot bull shark came up from underneath, knocking him out of the water. It snapped off four of Anderson's fingers, chomped at his belly, then ripped away his right arm below the elbow.

The attack almost killed Anderson, 54. It also turned him into an advocate for one of the most fearsome fish in the sea.

"They're vicious, and they're mean," Anderson said. "But, you know, I don't have any right to be angry at the shark."

Anderson is in town for what could be the largest gathering of American shark-attack survivors to date -- and certainly one of the oddest lobbying blitzes ever on Capitol Hill. At least nine survivors plan to press the Senate to put new restrictions on fishing for sharks, some species of which are in deep decline. Thirty-two percent of the sharks and rays that live in the open ocean were classified as "threatened" this year by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Scientists fear that ocean ecosystems could be knocked out of whack by the loss of their "apex" predators.

The nine shark survivors offer a wildly counterintuitive story. For them, the terrifying seconds they spent as prey have created a forgiving, even admiring, bond with the ocean's great hunters.

The tiny group was organized by a survivor who works for the nonprofit Pew Environment Group. She began calling others like her to see whether they might offer their unique perspective and lobby for protections. Some balked but several signed on, and Pew agreed to fund their outreach.

"We'll finally be heard," said Al Brenneka, 52, who lost his right arm to a seven-foot lemon shark in 1976. "Who should speak up for the sharks, better than the people that the sharks have spoken to themselves?"

Shark bites are rare in the United States: Since 2000, there have been an average of 43 per year and a handful of fatalities. At last count, the Florida-based International Shark Attack File calculated the odds of an attack as 1 in every 11.5 million beach visits.

At the same time, sharks have been devastated by our desire to eat them -- in soup. The trade in fins for shark-fin soup, a delicacy in Asia, has been blamed for heavy fishing of many species. Others are slaughtered for the rest of their meat or killed accidentally by fishermen setting out nets or hooks for tuna and marlin.

Because of all this, it is often said that sharks have more to fear from us than we from sharks.

That's true only most of the time.


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