Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of SharksJuliet Eiperin
Pantheon, 320 pp., $26.95
I once held a live shark in my bare hands. Admittedly it was a juvenile, but despite its age, it still made my arms shake and my knees weak as two-and-a-half feet of pure muscle thrashed desperately in my grip. The researchers I was accompanying did the hard part, measuring the young scalloped hammerhead, clipping a tiny piece of its tail to record its DNA, and punching a bright blue tag through a fin in the hopes that they -- or another research team -- would one day meet it again. All I had to do was remember their most important piece of advice: keep your fingers away from the mouth.
This was in 2001, at the end of the infamous "Summer of the Shark." As a reporter for the Carolinas’ largest daily newspaper, I was doing my part to help feed the media’s insatiable shark frenzy. The decade since then has brought an explosion in knowledge about -- if not respect for -- sharks, as new tagging and satellite tracking technology has transformed our understanding of their life history and biology. In the words of one researcher, "If you read shark books from a decade ago, large tracts of them are incorrect." Juliet Eilperin’s Demon Fish remedies that situation by bringing shark science into the present.
In her survey of recent discoveries -- sharks engage in longer migrations than previously thought, dive deeper, and can reproduce asexually when necessary, for starters -- Eilperin begins to do justice to an animal that appeared 200 million years before the dinosaurs and plays a vital role in the health of our oceans. As befits a newspaper reporter (Eilperin is a longtime Washington Post correspondent), her writing is more matter-of-fact than literary. But the sheer volume of information she uncovers, and the plight and importance of her subject, keep the book moving forward with a momentum that sharks might envy.
The tragedy is that even as we learn more about sharks, we’re losing our chance to study them further. A staggering 73 million are killed every year to supply the growing demand -- mainly in Asia -- for shark fin soup, a dish that’s more about social status than taste. When sharks suffer, so do our seas -- and so do we. A 2007 study in Science provided convincing evidence that several shark species off the Atlantic seaboard had declined by more than 97 percent since 1970, resulting in an explosion in the population of their prey species, including the cownose ray. Rays eat huge amounts of oysters, clams, and scallops; by 2004, their appetite had forced North Carolina to close its century-old scallop fishery.
We may never lose our selachophobia -- our fear of sharks -- but, as Eilperin makes clear, we also need them. As more shark species become endangered, scientists have begun to use computer models to simulate a world without sharks. As ever in a complex ecosystem, there are winners and losers when a top predator is deleted from the data set, but without sharks, the oceans quickly start to become something we wouldn’t recognize today. It might not make sense on a gut level to protect creatures we also fear, but in doing so, we also protect ourselves. Just remember the advice I got on that trip 10 years ago: hold on tight and avoid the teeth.