Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks
By Juliet Eilperin, Review by David McGuire for the San Francisco Chronicle
Bay Area residents get sharks more than most people. Whether we're tracking our resident white shark population in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary or debating how to keep the predator off dinner plates, sharks are often in the news here.
But many people, of course, love to hate sharks. What is it about the fish that stimulates our deepest fears and inspires our fascination? This is just one question that Juliet Eilperin explores in her engaging new book, "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks."
Eilperin examines how sharks have been viewed throughout history, from the ancient Aztecs to the shark callers of New Guinea to shark fin traders in Hong Kong, and how we are bringing about a decline in shark populations around the world.
As the national environmental reporter for the Washington Post, Eilperin is as comfortable with political sharks as she is writing about subjects from fisheries to marine protection.
Inspired by her own curiosity, Eilperin takes us on a far-ranging voyage through the shark world. She dives with great whites in South Africa, tags reef sharks in Belize and swims with whale sharks in Mexico.
Like a shark to a bleeding fish, the shark world attracts colorful and interesting characters. From fishermen such as Mark the Shark to equally quirky conservationists, the author brings in expertise from many sides. The book covers DNA forensics, population biologists and shark sleuths, including a few pages on a Bay Area shark-poaching ring. In her journeys, Eilperin encounters and investigates threats to sharks.
The book is less about shark attacks than about Man Bites Shark. We learn that I am more likely to perish from rabies by a dog bite than I am surfing Stinson Beach, even inside what is known as the Red Triangle, the area known for the relatively high incidents of shark attacks (10 in nearly 100 years).
Eilperin investigates the greatest threats to sharks: the shark fin trade and the ecological and economic forces affecting shark populations. With a bill before the California Legislature to ban the sale of shark fins – San Franciscans consume more shark fin soup than anyone in the state – the book is certainly timely. And "Demon Fish" does the subject justice.
One chapter tells us how sharks have adapted as the top predator for hundreds of millions of years. And yet this same biology makes them extremely vulnerable to our own depredations, especially shark finning, in which sharks are killed solely for their fins. Often the sharks are discarded while still alive, a cruel and wasteful act. The market for these fins is for the lucrative luxury, shark fin soup.
Whether finned or fished, the author suggests, sharks cannot sustain the rate of overfishing in the world's oceans, and the rising demand for a luxury product is causing the demise of entire populations and threatening species.
As the major trader of fins in Hong Kong sanguinely explains, "If you've got less, it's more expensive. People will still buy it."
To her credit, Eilperin is careful in her research and adds realism through her own experience. Unlike many books about sharks that gravitate to the sensational, "Demon Fish" gives a fair balance to those who exploit sharks and those who work to protect them. We conclude, sadly, that it is the former, not the latter, who are winning the battle.
The only criticism (selfishly) that I can add is that Eilperin makes no mention of John McCosker and the California Academy of Sciences' groundbreaking work in white shark research and our own local sharks. But this is a minor criticism, especially in an ocean of inaccurate coverage of sharks.
In "Demon Fish," Eilperin cites the evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson using sharks to explain a universe to which most people are oblivious. To this Eilperin astutely adds, "How we negotiate sharing the planet with sharks could help determine what our own future looks like, not just theirs."
This article appeared on page GF – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle