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February 26, 2008

Sharks and Suits

Posted: 01:31 PM ET

Two very different environmental stories are out there today: A fatal shark attack off the Bahamas, and the U.S. Supreme Court's hearing of arguments in the Exxon Valdez lawsuit.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the release of the 2007 worldwide death toll for shark attacks on humans: One person died in a shark attack last year, a vacationing French diver in the South Pacific. We discussed the media's fascination with sharks, despite the rare rate of fatalities. More people are killed each year by snakes, deer collisions, or falling vending machines than by sharks. There were some great reader responses, too - although a few folks took a political turn, questioning my use of the title "Swift-Boating the Sharks."

On Monday, an Austrian attorney and dive enthusiast was fatally injured as he participated in a "swim with the sharks" expedition. The Florida-based excursion boat had traveled to Bahamian waters, where the crew allegedly chummed the water to attract sharks. Such activities are illegal in Florida waters. This tragedy is sure to raise more debate about such expeditions, and about our relationship to these fascinating, potentially dangerous creatures.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is ready to hear arguments Wednesday on a $2.5 billion punitive judgment against Exxon for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 1994, a jury found Exxon and Joseph Hazelwood, the ship's Captain, guilty of recklessness, awarding $287 million in actual damages and $5 billion in punitive damages. While an appeals court later cut the punitive damages in half, it remains as one of the biggest such judgments ever. Exxon is asking the high court to wipe out the rest of the punitive judgment - saying Exxon's already spent over $3 billion in fines and cleanup costs related to the spill. But the plaintiffs - 33,000 fishermen, business and land owners, Native Alaskans, and communities – – hope to see the verdict upheld.

Quite a few things have changed in the nineteen years since the spill: Exxon is now Exxon/Mobil; nearly 20% of the original 33,000 plaintiffs have died without seeing a final decision in the case. For his part, Captain Hazelwood has kept a low profile. During the 1990's he worked for a time as a paralegal in the law office that handled his case. He also worked at the SUNY Maritime College on his native Long Island - as a safety instructor aboard the college's training ship.

Peter Dykstra Executive Producer CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: Animal attacks • environment • oil spills • Sharks


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