More books probably have been written about sharks than about any other creatures that live in the sea, so when I opened this one I was skeptical: What could it possibly add? A great deal, it turns out. The last decade has revolutionized our understanding of sharks, largely through the marvels of computerized tags attached to sharks’ bodies that let us travel the seas with these beasts and glimpse their world almost as they do. These devices tell us where they are, how deep they dive and what journeys they undertake, some of which span thousands of miles.
In “Demon Fish,” Juliet Eilperin circles the world in pursuit of sharks and the people who love and hate them. Her journey goes back more than 1,000 years, to when the Aztecs revered sharks and sawfish. Hundreds-of-years-old accounts show that past oceans teemed with predators. Only a few remote places like Kingman Reef in the mid-Pacific support such numbers today. With an evolutionary legacy 400 million years long, sharks have endured through several mass extinctions. They have seen the dinosaurs come and go, but nothing has prepared them for us.
The great white epitomizes the fear and awe that sharks inspire. At up to 20 feet long and as much as 5,000 lbs, it is the emperor of predators. This beast — or at least a rubber model of it — was star of the 1975 movie “Jaws,” a film that preyed on our primordial fears of deep, dark water and unseen predators that strike without warning to eat us alive. Much-publicized footage of great whites leaping clear of the sea in South Africa with shocked seal pups clamped in their jaws has done nothing to allay our fears. Yet computerized tags and painstaking research have thrown up many surprises about great whites. When the seal-breeding season is over, California’s great whites go on vacation in Hawaii. Far from being insatiable predators, they feed irregularly, and during lean times can get by for a month and a half on a single bite. Great white attacks on people are rare, despite the fact that they swim not far from crowded beaches. Most attacks are mistakes, it seems, with a test chew and quick spit, provoked no doubt by our scrawny unpalatability compared to fat young seals. A tiny minority of great whites enjoy the flavor enough to make a meal of some unfortunate swimmer. But in reality, the most dangerous predator by far is us.
Eilperin, the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post, takes us to the heart of a trade in shark flesh that has its roots in 11th-century China. Today, no Asian banquet is complete without a dish of shark fin soup that proclaims the high status of the celebrants and honors the guests. But given Asia’s huge population and growing wealth, the appetite for soup far outstrips the ocean’s ability to provide. Between 1996 and 2000, up to 73 million sharks were slaughtered worldwide every year to supply the trade in fins alone; that’s equivalent to the human population of California, Texas and Pennsylvania combined. Ever the diligent journalist, Eilperin sampled the soup in Hong Kong and was staggered to discover that the fin was nothing more than a “translucent, tasteless bit of noodle.” She adds, “This is the moment that I come face-to-face with shark’s fin soup’s amazing secret: it is one of the greatest scams of all time, an emblem of status whose most essential ingredient adds nothing of material value.”
Sharks reproduce slowly, some very slowly. with no more than a pup or two every other year. This means that overfishing is rapidly emptying the seas. As Eilperin concludes, most “sharks cannot be harvested sustainably because they cannot . . . offset these human-induced losses. A sustainable shark fishery is as unrealistic as reasonable bald eagle hunting.” If sharks and people are to coexist, we must urgently rethink our relationships with them.
There are signs of hope amid the carnage. Hawaii has banned shark finning, while Palau and the Maldives have stopped fishing sharks altogether. But fisheries on the high seas continue unabated.
Eilperin is an unobtrusive and balanced guide. She has a deft hand with cameo descriptions of the people she meets on her travels and can sketch a scene with a few choice words. She draws the reader along easily in a tale rich in color and character. Underwater she dives with whale sharks in Mexico, great whites in South Africa, black tips in Belize and lemon sharks in the Bahamas. In the process she meets those most passionate about these beasts, from scientists and conservationists to fin traders, big game hunters and the shark callers of New Guinea who in a timeworn tradition lure sharks to their flimsy canoes with coconut shell rattles. Whether they are killers or protectors, she tells their stories with fairness and understanding. I forgot the time as I immersed myself in the world of sharks. Whether you’ve never read a book about sharks or have a shelf full of them, this is a book for you.
Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks
By Juliet Eilperin
Pantheon. 295 pp. $26.95