Thursday, July 26, 2012

A must-read book for anyone interested in the world around us.

5 out of 5 stars

Sharks are not the best ambassadors for their own survival. The original sea monsters of yore, they are not cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy. And while they may be photogenic, it's not in an “Aww” kind of way. It's more akin to an “Aaah!" So while other animals imperiled by man's actions, such as the playful otter and friendly dolphin, the majestic whale and the placid turtle, endear themselves to humans and thus find themselves saved from utter destruction, it wasn't until recently that anyone started giving a damn about the horrible, deadly, sinister, man-eating shark and the fact that we've been killing them off indiscriminately since we discovered their existence a few hundred years ago. Many cultures, both today and in the past, might say the only good shark is a dead shark. Well, as some individuals and countries are coming to find out, that statement is the biggest piece of dumb-ass logic anyone has ever thought up.

We've so impacted the shark's environment, with our industries, our pollution, our fishing, that not only have several species of shark declined in population by anywhere from 90 to 99%, those sharks being caught today are smaller than their counterparts of even just a hundred years ago. Sharks do not rebound quickly; though some species give birth to large litters, many species take years to mature and only reproduce a limited number of times in their life--most of the time the litters they produce are small, with only one or two pups per birth. While we've begun to--finally--set aside protected waters, those areas cover only a fraction of the shark's territory and even then, some of the protections contain loopholes which still allow sharks to be fished. The truth is, we still know very little about these creatures, who've managed to stick around this planet for nearly 425 million years. That's 425 million years . These creatures, who've evolved into some of the most perfectly, if occasionally oddly, designed animals on the planet, have been around since before the dinosaurs and have even contributed to our own evolution (the bones of our inner ear, the way we swallow and talk due to muscles and cranial nerves which are the same as those which move a shark's gills), are still decried as man-eating monsters who deserve no pity. Yet these monsters are being systematically wiped out by us, humans, a predator more devastating, more mercenary, more cruel than any shark on this planet.

Juliet Eilperin's book is a well-researched investigation of the different ways in which we've poached, killed, decimated and otherwise pillaged the world's oceans of this apex predator, and the repercussions various governments and peoples have reaped as a result, in the form of depleted fish stocks, depressed economies, not to mention lost tribal traditions and vanishing cultural heritages. From the travails of Mark “the Shark” Quaratiano, who runs a fishing charter in Miami and complains that instead of sticking his hand in the water and pulling out a shark from the infested waters, he now has to work for several hours before he's able to catch a single shark for his macho-men, testosterone-boosting weenie clients (aww, poor baby), to the shark callers of Papua New Guinea, who are losing their faith-based tradition, which has sustained their native culture through colonization and Christian missionary proselytizing, due to the simple fact that the sharks of their islands have disappeared due to overfishing. Not the overfishing of prey fish, although that's played a part; no, overfishing of the sharks themselves. Which brings us to the most horrendous activity responsible for the decline of the shark: Finning. The practice of hauling a shark on board, slicing the pectoral and dorsal fins off the animal and tossing it, often while still alive, back in the water, to drown as it sinks to the ocean floor. Millions of sharks each year are killed in this manner, to supply one industry, shark's fin soup. And yet, as an ingredient, shark's fin adds nothing to the soup; it's a thin, noodle-like ribbon of cartilage which adds no flavor, only prestige to a dish which was once served only to a select few but now, with the rise of the Chinese middle class, is consumed at any and every occasion where such prestige is desired. Eilperin follows the trail of this world-wide trade, from the poor fishermen who are simply following the money even as they realize how the sharks have disappeared from their fishing grounds, to the secretive auction houses, where fins are sorted and sold with a minimum of words and a maximum of dollars and yen exchanged. The author details her travels around the world, to the different hotspots of shark fishing as well as shark protection and education, in a vivid, yet rational voice; her book is a clear-eyed dissection of our legacy towards the elasmobranch family (that's the shark, skate and ray family for those who are not selachophiles [shark lovers, a word I just made up]), backed up by sound scientific data and in-depth research. Part travelogue, part scientific journal, this book is a lively and fascinating look at how various cultures relate to this ocean predator, often in a surprising and (despite how I might've made it sound) sometimes positive way.

I've been a shark lover for as long as I can remember. It's been a love tempered by an equal measure of fear; because I know some sharks like shallow, murky water, growing up in Florida, I never went past my ankles (if I could help it) whenever we spent a day at the beach. I'd love to go cage diving in South Africa and see a great white up close; even though I know it creates a Pavlovian response, I'd still like to visit a shark feeding operation in Bimini, wear a mesh suit and sit in the middle of a feeding frenzy. Yet, when I was younger, I was scared of even swimming in the pool by myself, because of the fear of what might come up from the bottom of the deep end. (Yes, I realize I was swimming in a chlorinated pool and that there was no creature, of any sort, waiting in the deep end; psychological fears are hard to overcome, no matter what kind of logic you throw at them.) I still enjoy Jaws, even though I scream at the TV screen in frustration for the erroneous stereotype it puts forth; I've watched The Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week festival since it's inception, even though, as the years went on, I got bored with many of the programs as they didn't teach me anything I didn't already know. So, as you might've guessed, this book appealed to me at a basic level. However, if you've never given sharks a second thought; if you've seen Jaws and shuddered but never really desired to know any more about those creatures than what was portrayed in the movie; even if you think sharks are evil incarnate and deserve to be killed, I urge each and every one of you to pick up this book and read it. Sharks may not be endearing to the masses, but upon completing Demon Fish I dare you not to feel some sympathy and distress over how we've treated a creature who, quite frankly, is just trying to live on this planet, the same as us. The story of sharks is a story about us, in the long run, and how we choose to interact with the creatures who share our space.

Read May 29-June 6, 2011
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program June 8, 2011

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