Eight years ago, Debbie Salamone was attacked by a shark in the shallow waters of Florida’s Cape Canaveral National Seashore. The shark severed her Achilles tendon and led her to question her two-decade career as an environmental reporter.
After surgery and months of recovery, she came to realize that if she loved the ocean, she had to love everything in it – even sharks.
Sharks play an important role in the ocean ecosystem, Salamone explains. Removing these top predators – whether through overfishing or harmful practices like shark-finning – can have dire consequences that ripple throughout the ecosystem.
“I realized my unique position: Who could better speak up for sharks than myself and people like me?” she says.
After joining Pew Environment Group as a shark conservation advocate, Salamone reached out to shark attack survivors all over the world. She gathered a motley crew of willing advocates that include a World Cup soccer player from South Africa, a Wall Street businessman and a surfer from Hawaii.
Some are missing arms, others are missing legs – and one is missing an arm and a leg. But all of them are fiercely devoted to the cause: saving the animals that changed their lives forever.
“It gave us this incredible platform,” Salamone says. “If we can see the value in saving sharks, then surely everyone else can.”
The survivors are using that platform to urge world leaders to develop conservation plans, set shark fishing limits, enact trade protections and create shark sanctuaries.
The fact that people will listen to their message is critical, Salamone says, because most people don’t even know that sharks are in trouble.
“[Fear] is the biggest challenge we face,” she says. “Because people are so afraid, sharks are not the first animals people think of wanting to save. They think that sharks can take care of themselves, but they’re a lot more vulnerable than they look.”
Salamone is hoping that “Shark Fight,” a TV special about the survivors airing during Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” will help educate people about the plight of sharks.
“This is the perfect show in terms of blending the drama of Shark Week with conservation,” Salamone says. “You’re getting the drama that’s interesting enough to keep people really intrigued so that when those conservation messages come out, they’re being heard.”
For Salamone and her fellow shark attack survivors, it’s an opportunity to turn a traumatic experience into something worthwhile.
“We can leave a legacy, and it’s not a legacy of fear – it’s a legacy of conservation.”
Shark Fight premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET on the Discovery Channel.