The Shark Lobby: Survivors Descend on Washington

Al Brenneka

Though they may have lost fingers or even a leg or an arm, a group of resilient shark bite victims hit Capitol Hill today and asked lawmakers to protect their attackers.

A collection of nine shark attack survivors -- banding together in a somewhat incongruous lobbying effort -- gathered to plead with senators and their staff members to pass a measure that would put strong restrictions on shark fishing.

"I'm just standing up for the ocean and what lives in it," said Laurie Boyett, who was swimming during a 1999 family reunion in Hawaii when she suddenly felt as though "a million pieces of glass" were thrust into her backside.

She lost her right buttock, and eight of her fingers were shredded by the teeth of a shark she never even saw. But she doesn't hold a grudge.

"I don't hold any blame against any shark," said the Rhode Island woman, who was 49 at the time of the attack. "I was entering their environment. I suffered dire consequences. I accept those consequences."

The group planned to visit 25 senators and ask them to support a bill aimed at ending a practice called finning, in which the a shark's fins are cut off and the body is discarded. Shark populations are in decline, and shark fins are in high demand in Asia.

"It's kind of emotional to share a moment with people who have gone through what I have experienced," Boyett told ABC News as she posed with the other survivors in front of the Capitol Dome in between Senate office visits.

Fellow attack victim Al Brenneka agreed.

"It's been a dream of my lifetime to be around other survivors," he said.

Brenneka's life changed one day in 1976 when, at the age of 19, he went surfing off Florida's Del Ray Beach. He had just caught "a really nice wave," and as he paddled back out he felt something as he plunged his right arm into the water. When he tried to pull up his arm, he was jerked off this board and into the water. He struggled to the surface, and in front of his face was a lemon shark that was thrashing and ripping off his flesh inch by inch.

"I was freaking," he said, but "I didn't feel any pain." He wrapped his legs around the shark's gills, and it immediately released him. But a week after surgery, Brenneka lost his right arm at the elbow.

He doesn't surf anymore, but Brenneka is a scuba diver and fisherman who now helps sharks. If he catches one, he tags it and throws it back.

"It's the only way we are going to learn more about them," he said.

Like many Americans, Brenneka was exposed to the dangers of sharks and their massive teeth, accompanied by the haunting musical score, in the movie "Jaws." He had seen the movie before his attack and has watched it since. Even with all he's been through, he contends, "It doesn't bother me."

Survivors Share Their Stories

Environmentalists say the consequences of finning have been disastrous for sharks. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says that a little more than half of the shark populations in the world's oceans are threatened or endangered.

The practice of finning shares part of the blame for that decline. Shark fins attract a high price in Asia, where they are used in soup. One estimate suggests 73 million sharks are killed each year as part of the global fin trade.

Congress passed a measure protecting sharks in 2000, but the Pew Environmental Group, which organized this unique lobbying effort, says fishermen have been able to find loopholes. A new measure banning all shark finning has passed the House, but the bill is still pending in the Senate.

"I can't see taking a fin and letting the shark rot at the bottom," said Brenneka. "We survivors are the strongest voice in protecting these sharks."

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