Monday, September 5, 2011

Demon Fish: an A to Z look at sharks and the world surrounding them

The summer has come to a close, Discovery's Shark Week has passed, sightings and shark incidents have once again brought out the "Summer of the Shark" hyperbole and so now, as the seas begin to calm, it's time for some well-written, intellectual discourse on the subject.

If one is interested in learning about sharks, there are quite a few books available - just do a search on your favorite online book retailer and you'll find a vast selection to choose from. There are many stunning picture or coffee table editions from which you can appreciate the variety of sharks. And there are some good informational books, many of which churn over the same information - almost a common vocabulary or library of factoids. It can be interesting to review some of these books based on when they were written; there's much that we keep learning about sharks so the science is continually being re-written.

However, I don't believe there has been a definitive volume that looks at not only the well-worn facts, but also the culture, the history of man's relationship with the shark and how that effects our past, present, and future attitudes - all of which play a hand in the shark's future and our own. No such volume existed until now, with the publication of Demon Fish by Juliet Eilperin (Pantheon Books).

Subtiltled Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, Demon Fish represents several years of study by Ms. Eilperin into both the role of sharks within the marine ecosystem and the role it has played in our society. The reader experiences the big picture and the many players involved, from scientists to sportfishermen to commercial shark traders to island natives to worldwide conservation groups. Eilperin weaves these all together into a tapestry of interconnectivity: many may fear the shark, but it has been a part of our lives for centuries.

As the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post, Eilperin is the consummate journalist, digging deep for details, providing the background to put people, places, and events into context. For some who may be looking for a wild adventure yarn, there may be more detail here than desired. But to take a pass would be a shame. Demon Fish takes you into the world of the shark and the world that surrounds it. If sharks are to succeed as a species, we must understand and appreciate both worlds.

Eilperin writes of the many scientists, shark advocates, and conservation organizations that are working to both understand and protect sharks. Names like Peter Klimley, Robert Hueter, Neil Hammerschlag, Mahmood Shivjii, Barbara Block, South Africa's Alison Kock, and many others from around the world - some well-known in shark advocate circles, some perhaps not - all have their work highlighted to show what we are learning about sharks, how important they are to maintaining a healthy ocean, and why many of them are become scientist-activists as they reaffirm that the greater predator - the true villain in this aquatic play - is humankind itself.

However, even though Eilperin's pro-shark position is clear throughout the book, as a seasoned impartial journalist she also delves into the lives and the minds of those who we might think of as some of the shark's greatest adversaries: commercial shark traders, sport or commercial fishermen, and indifferent or anti-shark cultural attitudes particularly in Asia. This is an aspect of Demon Fish that I believe sets it apart from all the rest. From avid shark hunters like "Mark the Shark" Quartiano, who runs shark fishing charters out of Florida, to Yip Chiu Sung, a major Hong Kong trader in shark products, Eilperin's interviews and observations paint a complete portrait of those who view sharks as a commodity or as a demon that needs to be destroyed.

For many of today's fervent shark advocates, having this backstory view of those who they would prefer to condemn is critically important as more and more legislation and regulations are being proposed worldwide to protect sharks. In today's political world, the success of such policies will depend on strategies that can convince and win over those who view sharks more in economic rather than ecological terms. Demon Fish allows us to know our enemies just as much as our heroes.

Centuries ago, many cultures respected and even worshiped sharks - some island nations still do. But for the most part there was a cultural shift that propagated fear and ignorance. It has taken time, but those attitudes are now wreaking havoc on an entire species. Meticulously written, Juliet Eilperin's Demon Fish comes closest to being the alpha/omega examination on how we got to where we are today, what's being done, and what may lie ahead.

No comments: