In the months following the traumatic tiger shark attack that claimed the right foot of Kauai surfer Mike Coots in 1997, no one could have fathomed that he would be standing in Washington, D.C., nearly a decade later, lobbying Congress for the protection of the very predator that nearly took his life. But that's exactly where Coots stood last week, detailing the travesty that is shark finning--the act of catching and effectively killing a shark for the sole purpose of taking its fin--to some of the most powerful men and women in the world. With the hope that his personal experience, coupled with a mountain of scientific evidence, could help put an end to the estimated tens of millions of sharks that are killed annually worldwide, Coots was on a mission.
To boot, if Mike Coots' name rings a bell, it's because he's been an ardent contributing photographer to SURFER for the past few years, sending us some amazing images that have graced the glossy pages of the magazine. But when we got wind that Coots was headed to D.C. to take on Congress in defense of sharks, we needed to find out more.
"A few months back, a lobbying organization called Pew called me up and asked if I would be interested in going to D.C. to talk to members of Congress about enacting harsher laws to stop shark finning," says Coots. "I was interested in the idea but I didn't really know a whole lot about it. So I did some research, spoke to some experts on the matter, and found out how unbelievable the whole thing is. Once I knew, I had to help."
Millions of sharks are killed every year for their fins, which are primarily used to make shark fin soup, a delicacy in many parts of Asia. Some reports put the number as high as 70 to 100 million, and experts believe that the balance of the marine eco system will inevitably suffer consequences. As the ocean's apex predator, sharks have helped control the natural balance of the world's oceans dating as far back as the Jurassic Period.
According to a study released last month by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, roughly a third of all sharks worldwide are in danger of extinction. The threatened species include hammerheads, great whites, and mako sharks.
As far as "finning" is concerned, the practice has proven to be a cruel yet lucrative endeavor. Reportedly, the going rate for a fin in Asia is $700/kilogram. In most cases, the sharks are caught on long lines, pulled to the boat, have their fins hacked from their body, and are then dumped overboard to perish in the sea.
Currently, there are laws that prohibit the practice of shark finning in the United States. Unfortunately, the laws contain loopholes large enough for many of the fishermen to sneak their catch through.
That's how Coots, along with eight other shark attack survivors, found himself in D.C. encouraging Senators to tighten up these loopholes and approve a bill that passed through the House in March.
"Right now, the law states that fishing vessels can't come ashore with shark fins unattached to the body, but what they [the shark finners] have been doing is unloading their fins onto non-fishing vessels before they come ashore, using a loophole in the law," says Coots. "What we want to do is to get this new law passed that would close up those loopholes in this country and hopefully set a standard for the rest of the world to follow."
"It's really a no-brainer," he continues. "We laid the facts out for the Senators and will let them make a decision. But if my story of getting bit by a shark can help save the animal...then that's great."