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When swimming in the ocean, there's little that can get your heart pumping as fast as coming into contact with a shark, whether it's because you're afraid of it or because you're awed by it. We have an odd love-hate relationship with sharks, both frightened by their potential to kill (however hyped up that risk may be) and admiring of their perfect evolution as ocean predators. Knowing what we do of the importance of sharks to marine ecosystems, why do we pull them from the water at the rate of 73 million or more animals per year? Juliet Eilperin explores the history of shark and human interactions in her book Demon Fish: Travels Through The Hidden World of Sharks, and delves into why we have this conflicted and destructive relationship with one of the most ancient animals on the planet -- including the sources of our fear, the great scam that is shark fin soup, and how they're worth more to the economy alive than dead.
Demonizing Sharks For No Good Reason
Historically we have feared sharks as one of the most deadly creatures in the sea. After shark attacks, humans go on the rampage and kill sharks as if to rid the seas from this potential threat. But as Eilperin points out eloquently and thoroughly in her book, we are the real threat to sharks.
"Killing sharks conveys status to those who slay them (or, by inference, to those who can afford to buy the fruits of these battles) because they inherently pose a mortal threat to us. This shift has enormous implications, since humans have been able to harness technology to destroy sharks in unprecedented numbers. The way we deal with sharks pushes the boundaries of how comfortable we are with danger and taps into our tendency to view the wild as exotic. But it also underscores how globalization and scientific inquiry are transforming our understanding of the sea."
We are too good at killing sharks
Because of these technological advances, and the desire to "master" a large fish capable of killing us with a single bite, not only are commercial operations wiping out shark populations but recreational fishing of these big bad beasts of the deep outpaced even commercial efforts for 15 of the 21 years between 1981 and 2001. "These numbers appear to be on the rise," writes Eilperin, "the absolute number of sharks US anglers caught increased by roughly a third between 2006 and 2007, according to NOAA."
Right now, as many as 1/3 of all shark species are threatened with extinction, and the rates at which species are declining is alarming. For example, the oceanic whitetip shark population has declined by 99% during the second half of the twentieth century. Researchers have shown how such declines are impacting many of the large species like hammerheads. And a recent survey of great white sharks off California showed a shockingly low population.
One scientist who befriended a taxidermist in South Beach, Florida found that in one month, over 40 pregnant female hammerhead sharks had been brought in, representing not just 40 sharks, but 800 or more animals killed by recreational fishing.
Humans are the real threat
Our logic for vilifying sharks is flawed to the nth degree. As Eilperin writes, "Of all known shark species, only 6 percent are known to attack humans...On average, more than forty times as many Americans seek hospital treatment for accidents involving Christmas tree ornaments than incidents involving sharks.... By contrast, the growing demand for shark fins -- the most touted element in shark's fin soup -- has driven such intense shark hunting that even some of the people who have suffered from shark strikes are now lobbying for heightened shark conservation measures."
It is time we got over the weird and morbid fascination with sharks as a danger to our lives, and start looking at ourselves as a monstrous threat to the survival of marine ecosystems.
The Battle Against Shark Fin Soup
One of the primary reasons sharks are disappearing from the planet is not because we're trying to wipe out a killer, but because of the perceived value of a very small part of their bodies -- their fins.
China has turned shark fin soup into a delicacy. Over the centuries, the soup has been served at the most high-end events like royal gatherings. In modern times, it is practically a requirement to serve shark fin soup at celebrations such as weddings, and at high-end business meetings as a way to show off one's wealth to potential clients and business partners. But as the middle class grows in China and more people have the funds to buy shark fin soup, the demand is far exceeding the sustainable supply of fins.
China's insatiable appetite for shark fin soup
Eilperin writes, "In 2000, the five major markets for shark fins -- Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore -- reported importing 11,600 metric tons of fins, of which Hong Kong accounted for 47 percent. The numbers keep rising: in 2008, Hong Kong alone imported 10,002 metric tons of fins. But as China's role as an importer of raw shark fins has grown, it's become harder to track the overall trade because Chinese government figures are so unreliable."
Photo by cephalopodcast via Flickr CC
Yet as Eilperin reveals, shark fin is one of the most expensive and elaborate items a restaurant can prepare, and some restaurants would rather not have to put it on the menu but consumer demand requires it. Shark fin is nearly tasteless, has an odd stringy texture, and research in 2001 showed that the fins found in Bangkok's markets have mercury levels up to 42 times higher than the safe limit for human health.
Shark fin soup is the "greatest scam of all time"
After tasting a bowl of shark fin soup, Eilperin decides, "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 to the end product."
So why the constant demand for shark fin soup? Prestige, and custom. Wedding planners in China state that it's simply a part of doing business -- you can't not offer it as part of the event. It's like leaving flowers out of a wedding in the US. Even when asking why the key ingredient -- a translucent, tasteless noodle-y bit of fin -- can't be substituted with something else just as crab meat is easily substituted in our ubiquitous California sushi rolls, "No one, not even the most ardent environmental activists, seemed willing to entertain this idea. It would be deceptive, they reasoned, to coax consumers into eating a shark's fin soup devoid of its central ingredient... Since the central premise behind shark's fin soup rests on the act of killing the shark itself, rather than the pleasure in eating it, there's no way to save the animal and still preserve the value of its namesake dish."
Photo by Stormy Dog via Flickr CC
A new generation of scientist-activists
Thankfully, as the demand rises, so too does the fight by activists to end the practice of shark finning and place tough restrictions on the fishing of sharks in general. In fact, Eilperin points out that there is a new generation of scientist-activists on the rise, who get findings of studies to media outlets as soon as the information is discovered so that we aren't waiting years to get data out to the public and shed light on shark population declines.
I started reading this book on the same day that the California assembly passed a ban on the sale of shark fins. Opponents call the bill unfair in that it targets a particular community. That argument underscores what this book has to say -- that humans put our preferences above the survival of ecosystems, before the health of an Earth worth living on.
At what point does nature trump culture?
Eilperin's book details not just our conflict with sharks, but also the many ways in which humans can coexist with these animals, and the creative ways conservationists are helping to save species.
Sharks Are Worth More Alive Than Dead... About $2 Million More
A key way we can slow the decline of sharks is to show how they're worth more alive than dead. A party might pay a couple thousand dollars to go hunt a shark on a weekend getaway, and that one shark is therefore only worth that couple grand. But a party may pay that same amount to swim with said shark, and that shark remains alive to have party after party after party swim with it, making it worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in marine tourism. Add to that the value it plays in keeping a reef system healthy by picking off sick or too-plentiful fish and researchers have found a single shark can be worth millions if it stays alive.
"As one of the most dominant forces underwater, sharks help maintain the balance of marine ecosystems by keeping midlevel predators in check. One of their most valuable qualities, from a strictly human perspective, is that they hint at how the ocean would look if we invested in its resilience instead of plundering its depths," Eilperin writes.
Diving with Great Whites
Photo by Tim Sheerman-Chase via Flickr CC
In this way, cage diving with great whites has become a popular tourist activity, as is swimming alongside the whale sharks in Mexico and Central America. However, even these activities are not without their downsides when done to an extreme.
For instance, Belize began whale shark tourism to find that the enthusiasm of swimmers were making the sharks shy away, at the risk of losing their chance to feed. Isla Holbox is working on building up whale shark tourism, but hopes that the restrictions placed on the tourism operations, such as each boat requiring a license, that each boat can only carry a certain number of individuals, and that only one boat at a time can be next to a whale shark.
Whale Shark Tourism
Photo by istolethetv via Flickr CC
Demon Fish explains sharks like no other book
With Demon Fish, Eilperin deftly takes us through the science of shark anatomy, shark-inspired biomimicry, and the latest high-tech tools we can use to study sharks from accelerometers in tagging devices to rapid DNA testing to find out the origins of a piece of shark fin, to the threats on the species survival humans pose around the world from macho recreational fishermen to long-line commercial fishing that snags sharks as bycatch to the mass hauls of sharks for their fins destined for Asia.
And finally, she walks us through the many conservation efforts and strategies underway. While the hope is slim for stemming the mass fishing of sharks, there is indeed hope. Demon Fish gives readers the education they need to take effective steps in fighting for sharks, and if a reader closes the book without feeling inspired then they weren't paying attention.
For anyone interested in sharks, Demon Fish is a must read for the history of our interactions with the species over centuries, the ways different cultures respect and revere the animal while others have a loathing and fearful fascination with sharks, and the science behind one of the most perfectly evolved creatures on the planet, from which even some of our own features stem.
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