Author Juliet Eilperin takes readers on a global journey into the hidden world of sharks
While interviewing commercial fishermen in New England, she heard the phrase that would become the title of her new book. “They referred to sharks as ‘demon fish,’” says Juliet Eilperin, speaking over the telephone from her office at The Washington Post, where she works as the national environmental reporter. “I thought it was an interesting commentary on how humans view sharks. It tapped into a human’s first reaction—although the book is trying to get beyond that first reaction.”
Eilperin’s book, “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks,” does just that—it takes readers on a journey beyond their assumptions about this predator of the seas, circumnavigating the globe to illuminate humanity’s complex relationship with an animal that is at the same time both feared and revered.
Along the way, readers will meet shark callers in Papua New Guinea, observe shark fin traders in Hong Kong, travel to a pristine coral reef in the Line Islands and hear what it’s like to come face to face with a 3,000-pound whale shark. The book is filled with facts about the life history of sharks—as well as folklore, scientific data and a strong conservation plea.
Anyone interested in learning more about sharks, ocean ecosystems or humanity’s connection with nature won’t want to miss Eilperin’s appearance at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 15. The author will read from “Demon Fish” as well as participate in a question and answer session and sign copies of the book.
Eilperin says that the thing that surprised her most during her research was how near sharks are to humans—both in physical proximity and in evolutionary relationship.
“Physically, they are swimming right off the California coast,” Eilperin says. “In South Africa in the summertime, if you did an overflight you’d see sharks teeming in the water with swimmers.”
In addition, the idea that humans and sharks evolved from common ancestors—and that we share inner ear bones and jaw musculature to prove it—is a concept that changed her view of how both animals fit into the scheme of life.
Still, this didn’t make it any easier for Eilperin when she first slipped into water that was swarming with sharks.
“I was terrified the first time,” she recounts. “I was scared and the people around me were totally fine because they were researchers who did this all the time. It was a funny disconnect. I was so focused on watching the sharks to make sure they didn’t attack me, but when I got back on the boat and had time to reflect I realized they were more focused on the food than me. If they hadn’t had the bloody barracuda it would have been a different story, but I was definitely low on their priority list.”
Eilperin credits people’s fascination with sharks to the fact that they are such powerful, stealthy creatures. She describes their gliding, glowing bodies under the sea—and even when giving accounts of their predatory prowess she does so with a palpable sense of awe.
“One of the things I found most interesting is how human societies have vastly different views of what sharks are like,” she says, comparing South Pacific Island cultures that deify sharks with commercial fishing operators that demonize them. “All these constituents may have their livelihoods tied to sharks—whether through the fishing industry or ecotourism—yet they’ve developed different attitudes about them.”
Ironically, though many people fear sharks, humans have become their No. 1 threat. The book states that worldwide there are an average of five human deaths by shark attack per year, yet scientists estimate that up to 73,000 sharks are killed annually for the Asian delicacy shark’s fin soup. These sharks are caught, their fins are sliced off and the carcass is thrown back into the sea. “What’s so interesting is that it’s really the allure of eating something that can kill a human that drives demand, rather than taste,” says Eilperin, who tried shark’s fin soup while she was in Hong Kong. “I was struck by the fact that the noodles that come from shark fins are tasteless—it’s really the chicken and pork that add the flavor. The prestige factor provides it with culinary demand.”
Eilperin estimates that in addition to the finning industry, millions more sharks are caught annually as by-catch, when vessels put out bait for target fish, primarily tuna and swordfish, and accidentally capture sharks. Many of the commercial fishing operators she encountered—such as the New Englanders who gave her the name for the book—are hostile toward sharks because they view them as competitors for their target fish species.
“There is very little scientific evidence that sharks are consuming in large quantities the same kinds of fish (that fisheries are targeting),” Eilperin says, pointing out that because fisheries are dependent on a thriving ocean population with a number of different species up and down the food chain, removing one of the top predators can clearly have cascading effects and actually be detrimental to fisheries.
“Commercial fishing operators might want to see sharks as their allies rather than enemies,” she adds. Throughout the book, the message is clear: Sharks are integral in keeping ecosystems healthy and functioning. “They play a really important role in the ocean as one of the top predators,” says Eilperin. “There is little [doubt] they help maintain an ecosystem, by keeping middle predators in check and removing unhealthy organisms from the ocean.”
The question is irresistible: what is Eilperin’s favorite species of shark?
“The cookie cutter shark,” she answers, describing this pygmy shark’s bioluminescent body that’s broken up with a ring of dark pigment around its collar. When larger fish are swimming beneath the shark, they can’t see the luminescent part of its body against the light of the sky above. Instead, they see the dark band near the gills, which scientists believe they mistake for the silhouette of a smaller fish. Lured by the possibility of a meal, the larger fish swims near and then is ambushed by the cookie cutter shark—who surprise attacks by punching an eerily tidy hole, in the manner of a cookie cutter, into the flesh of the fooled fish.
“They also team up and cooperatively attack larger fish—it’s akin to being attacked by a group of angry wasps,” says Eilperin. “I think there’s something incredibly entrepreneurial that this much smaller shark attacks larger fish in the sea.”
Juliet Eilperin will read from “Demon Fish,” and participate in a Q&A and sign copies of the book at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 15 at at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 423-0900.